The Need for an Oasis of Peace

The following statement has just come in from Neve Shalom, the integrated school for both Jews and Arabs. The sentiments expressed are those we all share:

It is now a week since the Israeli elections. As many of you will have seen, despite the momentum gained by Benny Gantz and his Blue and White alliance, Prime Minister Netanyahu emerged as the candidate able to form a functioning coalition government.

Regardless of the results, we regret that issues of civic equality and the need for innovative and courageous approaches to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not form a greater part of the election debate, nor of the campaigns of the two front-running parties.

As Israel moves forward, we urge all parties in the newly-formed Knesset to press for a re-engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We also call on them to promote legislation ensuring the full equality and protection of rights of all citizens of Israel, in keeping with the promise of the country’s Declaration of Independence.

Regardless of one’s party-political persuasion, it is clear that the need for cooperative, peace-building projects between Jews and Palestinians is now more urgent than ever. Given the apparent absence of such dialogue at the governmental level, the onus is placed on grass-roots organisations to lead the way.

The youth of Sudan, the Shabab, step up to the mark

This came in today from one of our friends in Sudan: This is a post written by Opheera McDoom, she is the principle of Legacy School in Khartoum where my girls go, and a former Reuters reporter, depicting the revolution in Sudan.

Just to give those of you outside the country an idea of the atmosphere on the ground -Sudan now: Governing without a government. As you walk into the area of Khartoum now completely controlled by the young ‘revolutionaries’ down town, you see the difference.

Street outside: full of rubbish with plastic bags strewn across the roads. Street inside: clean of rubbish – bags to put your garbage placed strategically around and young men with long hair and skinny jeans roaming around, picking up trash and encouraging others to help.

Overnight as the crowds thin out, they wash the roads in teams. People arranging prayer areas and ensuring privacy to do so. Volunteers organising checkpoints every few metres to ensure no one gets through with weapons. Women search women and men search men. “We apologise for the search brothers and sisters. This is for your own safety and your brother’s safety” is the refrain repeated to anyone moving through.

A pharmacy run by young volunteer pharmacists to dispense medication to those who need it. Medicine provided by companies and individuals for free. Two blood donation trucks to ensure those injured in the protests obtain the blood they need.

People collecting cash contributions and bags of money left at the side of the road for anyone to take if they need money to get home. Shifts organised – the ‘day revolutionaries’ go home at night after the ‘night revolutionaries’ arrive to take over. Tents set up and run by volunteers to arrange cash, water and food donations.

Traditional Sudanese hospitality not forgotten – anyone visiting MUST drink tea or water. No cars allowed in unless you’re bringing donations – water, drinks, food. No exceptions or ‘mujamala’ even for foreign diplomats – the U.S. Charge D’Affaires was stopped outside when he came to visit.

Street children being fed and looked after – included in this new society. Group parties on every corner singing nationalist Sudanese songs and performing traditional dances.

Security? Taken care of. Makeshift blockades of bricks and borrowed razor wire block the roads to stop any attacks at night after a few failed but violent attempts to forcibly disperse the sit-in. Missing the football? Supporters sent a huge screen to watch the last big Barcelona match.

The roads in Sudan are normally chaotic and, during a black out, the traffic police (if they appear), can hinder more than they help. But the roads leading to the army HQ have been taken over by the people who are happily directing huge volumes of traffic and hundreds of parked cars

Children are given flags and biscuits, carried on shoulders so they can see above the throngs of people. Birthday parties, weddings – you name it, it’s happening right there in the street. Christian Sudanese Coptics holding fabric shades over the heads of their Muslim brothers while they pray under the hot sun.

Without any ‘leaders’ whatsoever, these young Sudanese managed to effectively run this sit-in, this mini ‘state’ within the capital, and do so politely, without infighting, ego or provocation. Instead humour, cooperation, unity and solidarity are the order of the day. The Sudanese people have a long and proud history of peaceful change.

Stay proud.

Pōwehi, the embellished dark source of unending creation

This comes in from Hawaiian NCF friend and member Stafford Clarry:

For a moment, let’s step off our very troubled Earth and journey to a place 55 million light-years away! Through wonderful international cooperation, that’s where astrophysical scientists confirmed and pictured for the first time the existence of a black hole. This is a stupendous, amazing extraordinary achievement.

(One light-year is the distance light travels in a year. How far is that? Light travels at approximately 300,000 kilometers/186,000 miles per second. How many seconds in a year? Or try 1,080,000,000 kilometers/671,000,000 miles per hour. How many hours in a year? Try doing the math.)

This recently shared first picture of a black hole was developed in super secrecy by scientists using a supercomputer that processed data collected two years ago from a network of eight astronomical facilities (radio telescopes) located on four of seven continents.

One of these places is Hawaii with two of the astronomical facilities that collected data to picture the black hole. The Hawaii radio telescopes are on top of Maunakea mountain where thirteen telescopes are located, including the second (twin) and fifth biggest telescopes in the world, which were not involved in picturing the black hole; they are optical, not radio, telescopes.

Maunakea is the tallest mountain in the world (from its base on the ocean floor – 10,000 meters/33,000 feet), the summit is 4,200 meters/13,800 feet above sea level. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the air at the top of Maunakea is usually very clean and clear, with virtually no artificial light to disturb astronomical observations.

Many centuries ago – long before contact with the Western world – Native Hawaiians determined the origin of creation to be a place of unfathomable intense darkness. They called it “pō”. This first pictured black hole has been given a Hawaiian name, Pōwehi, which means “embellished dark source of unending creation”.

The summit of Maunakea is less than a two-hour drive from my Hawaii home in Hilo. On New Year’s Day, we usually go to the top of Maunakea before sunrise to greet the first light of the new year.

Knife Crime in Birmingham

Knife crime is the most critical issue to face modern Britain (despite the UK media’s obsession with parliament’s embarrassing shenanigans on Brexit). The following has been written for us by Birmingham based Maariyah Rashid:

Birmingham has seen three teenage boys being stabbed to death in the space of a few days, which is in line with a general increase in knife crime in recent years (Labhart, 2019). The moral panic of knife crime has been spreading in British media in recent times with the discussion centred around race, police cuts and a sense there is an unprecedented amount of knife violence. These narratives for the most part have missed a more nuanced discussion regarding knife crime: rather knife crime sits in a broader discussion of systemic inequality and disadvantage in the UK.

The killings of Hazrat Umar, Abdullah Muhammed and Sidali Mohammed all took place in areas of Birmingham which are densely populated with people from minority backgrounds. This is not a coincidence. These killings demonstrate an intersection of race, class and inequality. Therefore, to really understand the ‘why’ of these deaths a discussion cannot happen in disjuncture with the context surrounding the lives of these young men. Thus, we cannot discuss violence and social inequality in isolation, as they work simultaneously to disempower people and communities.

Contrary to popular belief the social indicators of violence have remained the same across time. The social indicators remain – poverty, lack of education and lack of youth services to name a few. There are lived consequences of systemic inequality and disadvantage such as the average household earnings of a Bangladeshi family is £238 per week, compared to a national average of £393: household wealth of a Bangladeshi family is around £15,000 compared to £200,000 of White British households. That half of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households, and over two-thirds of their children, live below the poverty line; BME students are overrepresented in Higher Education (46%) but remain concentrated in post-1992 universities with only 8% at Russell Group institutions (compared with 24% of white students) (Alexander, 2014). Research shows pupils excluded from school at 12 are four times more likely compared to other children to be jailed as adults (Crawley and Hirschfield, 2018). The term ‘school to jail pipeline’ has emerged, explaining the link between schools failing children and expelling them to these expelled children ending in prison. Thus, the criminal justice system is systematically punishing poverty and socially marginalised vulnerable individuals.

The government’s response to knife crime illustrates the gap between real issues on the ground and research versus government policy. Sajid Javed’s new policies include, an extension of stop and search powers and calls on social media companies to do more to rid the web of violent gang content (Cueller and Markowitz, 2015). Firstly, extending stop and search power is often thrown about as a serious solution but this policy aims to further criminalise a social issue. Furthermore, this policy has been proven to be racially biased with stop and search eight times more likely to target black people (Dodd 2017). By extending these powers the government is punishing rather than rehabilitating people and it disproportionately affects ethnic minorities building further distrust and disenfranchisement.

To successfully tackle this issue there needs to be a shift in understanding of the root causes of the problem and therefore, what a durable solution might look like. This is not an alien concept or a radical one, it is a very real solution that Scotland has employed. Glasgow was one of the most violent cities but they took the decision to treat knife crime as a public health issue – rather than simply a police matter. (Younge and Barr, 2017). This has led to decreased crime rates and a better understanding of root causes of crime. It is abundantly clear we cannot continue to tinker around the edges of the system and introduce superficial policies. Social reform is necessary to change the way community functions to see real change

‘East of Suez’ – Theresa May re-opens Harold Wilson’s imperial closure

History@Kingston

A special guest blog by Dr. Neil Partrick  www.neilpartrick

Fifty years ago the British Government was struggling with austerity at home and exploring an uncertain international future. Nostalgia for what remained of Britain’s imperialism was not part of the ‘world power’ role that Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson ambiguously advocated when first elected in 1964. He wanted Britain to join the European Economic Community but prioritised the US relationship. Although he refused to send British troops to Vietnam, Wilson was targeted by the left, angry that he had not severed US-UK relations over the war.

Harold Wilson

This combination of financial and political factors made cancelling UK military commitments ‘East of Suez’ a seemingly easy option despite Washington’s blandishments for the UK to maintain its old imperial placement. Arab allies were not happy either. Feeling the decision would make them potentially vulnerable to Iran’s imperial ambitions, they begged and covertly offered…

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Sudan violence continues tonight – demonstrators dead

Reports are coming in from desperately concerned NCF members in Khartoum tonight. Demonstrators are besieged in Buri neighborhood at this moment. Seven have been shot dead thus far this evening. Demonstrators sought refuge in the houses of residents but armed militia has been going in after them. Many are being arrested and being tortured, including the mothers of some of the demonstrators.

NCF members in Khartoum are appealing for the intervention of the British Foreign Office whom they regard as having a historic responsibility. They are also begging the world’s press to take an interest in the catastrophe in Sudan.

The current demonstrations in the Sudan call for the downfall of the government headed by president Omar Al-Bashir. They have been going on for days now and the government response has been characterised by increasing violence against the peaceful demonstrators.

President Al-Bashir has not responded to the demands of the demonstrators calling those that oppose him, “mice”.

What is astonishing is the low level of interest being shown in the mainstream international media in the events in the Sudan. We do not understand it.

Detained Without Charges – Journalist languishes in an American jail

Catherine Shakdam contributes this on the Melanie Franklin issue:

Another journalist bites the dust, and this time not by the hands of a serial human rights abuser but the very country that, for generations, has sat a standard for freedom of expression and free speech: the United States of America.

On January 14, US-born journalist Melanie Franklin – better known under her Muslim name: Marzieh Hashemi, was arrested in St Louis’ Lambert airport as she prepared to board a plane. Within hours of her arrest Ms Hashemi was transferred to Washington DC where she has been detained without charge ever since, under almost absolute secrecy, and very limited contact to the outside world.
If not for widespread condemnation and pressure by social media, it is likely Ms Hashemi would have slipped through the cracks of America’s justice system – her civil and constitutional rights trampled over without any hope of recourse.

It was federal judge Beryl Howell, chief judge of the US District Court in Washington DC, who, last Friday, first broke silence over Ms Hashemi’s case by confirming that her detention had to do with a request by the FBI that she’d be made to testify before a grand jury, behind closed doors. No other details were offered as to why an innocent woman, a 59 years old grandmother and prominent journalist would be robbed of her freedom, cut off from her family and friends, and made to suffer the humiliation of the prison system.

A long-standing TV anchor for Press TV, Ms Hashemi, who also holds an Iranian passport, travelled to the US in late December to visit her terminally ill brother and to complete a documentary on Black Lives Matter she was working on. She now languishes in prison, shackled, her fate quite literally in the hands of her captors as no time-frame was offered insofar as what would qualify as an acceptable testimony.

While it is perfectly reasonable to ask any individual to collaborate with the authorities, it is difficult to rationalise the violence and contempt Ms Hashemi has faced. Beyond the restrictions put on her freedom of movement, the journalist, who is a devout Muslim, was forcibly made to remove her headscarf and presented only with pork-based food products at meal times.
If she has now been provided with proper clothing and food, following public outrage, one cannot help but wonder how many ‘others’ have had to contend with such breach of their human rights, and one must say dignity.

With the memory of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder still fresh in our mind it is virtually impossible not to recognise behind such development the rise of a dangerous trend against journalists, notwithstanding contumacy for the rule of law.
And so I must ask, is free speech being criminalised to serve very political purpose?

Ms Hashemi’s detention needs to be viewed within its broader context, and that is to say the independence of media, and of course officials’ willingness to play authoritarian games. America has long been engaged on that treacherous road that is media correctness – it is under President Trump’s administration however that such trend has turned into an accepted modus operandi.

A report by US Press Freedom Tracker in December 2018 attests to that. It reads: “The journalistic landscape in the United States is volatile, and 2018 has been a harrowing year for press freedom. The Tracker has documented more than 100 press freedom incidents since January, from murders and physical attacks to stops at the border and legal orders.”

Article 19 – a British-based organisation dedicated to the defense of free speech, warned against the many and grave violation journalists have had to face as a result of governments’ strongman policies and heavy-handed tactics to promote media’s compliance.

Executive Director Thomas Hughes said on the matter: “Our data shows that freedom of expression has been in decline for ten years and that this demise has accelerated significantly in the last three years … This is a global phenomenon with many violations happening in countries where freedom of expression has traditionally been protected.”

Ms Hashemi’s detention is symptomatic of America’s political and legal radicalisation. The US Freedom Tracker has documented a total of 27 subpoena or legal order cases against journalists – with 21 of those occurring in 2018.

It writes: “It’s likely that many subpoenas are not reported, and many legal orders for journalists’ records are conducted with high levels of secrecy. Therefore, the number of legal order and subpoena cases counted by the Tracker are likely to be a severe undercount, making a straight comparison of the data between years sometimes difficult.”

And: “2018 also saw the first publicly known seizure by the Trump administration of a journalist’s communications records, when the Department of Justice seized years of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins’ phone and email records as part of an investigation into her confidential sources. She was notified of this seizure after the fact, so she had no way to challenge the seizure in court.”

While it would be easy to fall within the trap of our own taught prejudices, and thus dismiss the injustice done on account Ms Hashemi sits an appointed ‘undesirable’ by virtue of her faith and choice of residence: Iran, notwithstanding her political views, one would argue against such moral relativism.

To fall silent before the strong-arming of our press equates to the rationalisation of authoritarianism, and by extent the death of all our democracies.

Self-preservation dictates that we all speak out in defense of Ms Hashemi, if not for her sake, for our own.

photo above by Fars News Agency, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75888210

ISIS is far from finished in Syria

The USA is to pull out of Syria leaving its Syrian Kurdish allies vulnerable to both Turkish attack and attack from the remaining ISIS forces. Tough times ahead for the Syrian Kurds. According to Stafford Clarry, the NCF’s main interlocutor on the ground in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, on average 75 ISIS’ attacks are occurring per month in Iraq and Syria, and there are, still, 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS combatants.

However, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump has tweeted.

Who to believe? Now that’s the question.

Reflections on the saga of Eastern Ghouta

 

At an International Communications Forum / Initiatives of Change meeting on Monday night one of the issues discussed was the credibility of Mid East media with a view (on the NCF’s Secretary General’s part) to reinstating the Media Credibility Index currently defunct other than an offshoot it spawned in Pakistan.  The NCF suggested that if we were to criticise Mid-East media we must take a mirror and look at the credibility of our own media and I cited the Eastern Ghouta issue as an example. Unwise perhaps. You will remember the West bombed Syria because of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian Government. I was hauled over the coals, quite rightly, by one young journalist for suggesting that because the officers of the Syrian Army denied the use of chemical weapons and because The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had failed to find any evidence of chemical weapons use in East Ghouta that might mean the story was false. After all the Russians kept everyone out of the place for a week. Or almost everyone. They allowed Robert Fisk of the Independent in but then they trust him because of his previous coverage and his acquaintance with first Hafiz and now Bashar al Assad.

I should not have made my assertion. But there were questions still to be answered and the case remained unproven. The NCF has been closely associated with East Ghouta in recent times and a little back story may help:

Prior to the last NCF delegation to Damascus back at the end of 2016 we were asked by the Kurdish community in London to raise the issue of a Kurdish Damascus University student arrested for putting up Facebook posts that were defamatory of the President. We raised the issue first with the office of the President’s wife (who were very helpful) and secondly directly with Ali Haider, the Minister for Reconciliation. The office of Asma al-Assad carried forward the issue diligently but regrettably could find no record of the boy’s name amongst the names of the inmates of Syria’s prisons. We informed the boy’s family that sadly they should come to terms with the fact that he was now dead. This story may not seem relevant but it will become so because of ramifications this case may have had as you will see if you read on.

Then the rebel held area of Aleppo fell in due course to President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Attention switched to East Ghouta. The siege tightened as the Syrian Army prepared to retake the area. We were concerned. We raised the East Ghouta issue at the United Nations in Geneva (with which the NCF is in consultative status). We promoted a deal whereby the fighters were allowed to evacuate as they had done in Aleppo. We urged that the 500 fighters from the former Gebat al Nusra group should be helped to leave the region and take refuge in the nations in the Arab World that had previously offered them support. This might be better than promoting a series of virtually useless ceasefires (which was what the UN had been doing). The full text of our statement to the UN can be found here. Our interns Jaskirat Mann, Be Sun Lee, and Memuna Hussain, personally lobbied the British, American and Syrian delegations and each and every Arab Ambassador present, one by one. We also conducted a side meeting in Geneva on 2nd March of this year in which we lobbied for the same outcome.

And in due course the policy switched and the evacuation was discussed, not because of our efforts but because there was nothing else left to do. But some of the fighters failed to cooperate. And then we had the alleged chemical weapons attack. Of course the ruthless and remorseless bombing of Eastern Ghouta combined with the collective punishment of the people there through Mediaeval style siege and consequent starvation was indefensible. But there were puzzling aspects to the chemical weapons attack. We set about investigating. We were particularly bothered by one claim that a chlorine gas canister had been dropped through a roof and fallen onto a bed (which was said to account for its remarkably undamaged state), the problem being that the bed did not align with the hole in the roof. The Bellingcat authenticated claim seemed such an obvious fraud that it troubled us. That said to be fair to Bellingcat, they just geolocated some of the open sourced videos from Ghouta and Douma, they did not verify the claims in other respects.

Still, on balance, even though some of the evidence could have been fabricated, some appeared damning and we felt that there had probably been a chemical weapons attack and concluded that if so there was a 75% probability that the Syrian Government were culpable (as opposed to this being a false flag incident).

Perhaps obviously, many friends from the opposition inside Syria were eager to see the Western bombing take place. In any event the West bombed, albeit very modestly. And the rebel fighters left Eastern Ghouta. And as the government advanced many of the male civilians of fighting age who had been unable to flee were carted off to internment camps.

We had been liaising with the civilians inside Eastern Ghouta throughout the fighting during previous months, trying to help if only by giving them another voice from outside to talk to so that they could know their appeals for help were being heard. One particular young man (name withheld) had been our key liaison. He now found himself interred with many others in a camp (name withheld) outside Damascus. It was a frightening situation. He tried to get released but could not but he still, remarkably, had his mobile phone and we could still liaise with him.

The real tragedy of Ghouta is not whether this was a genuine chemical attack but that many thousands have been needlessly traumatised and displaced from their homes.
We tried to get confirmation from friends in East Ghouta that chemical attacks had taken place. One responded, “If you are able bring me with my family to a safe country. I might be able to talk. Or provide statements. All mobile phone are monitored 24/7. Talking politics is prohibited.”

This time we intervened in a more circumspect manner, but intervene we did. And he was not only released from internment but he was allowed by the authorities to select 44 of his co-detainees for release with him. Which was remarkable. The authorities also found him a job. He was of course tremendously grateful and sent us a message to say “I sincerely want to express my gratefulness to you, the Russian officers, and (name withheld) and President Basher Al Assad for their efforts and I greatly appreciate their help to release me and 44 detainees and your help has ended my suffering and fear.”

We doubt whether it was our intervention that effected this release. It was probably the action of someone else. However, our chief interlocutor with the Syrian Military (name withheld) sent us a message at this point and said that he had been contacted directly by one of the commanders of the forces that took Ghouta and that the commander claimed in response to our enquiries that though they had indeed used chemical weapons in a prior instance they had not done so in Ghouta. Your observation might reasonably be “he would say that wouldn’t he”.

However, subsequently it became clear (as the Foreign Office and State Department will no doubt now be aware), that the video of children being doused with water much broadcast on the BBC at the time may have been falsified. There were questions with it from the beginning (the children’s eyes were not red until after they had been doused) but subsequently the little boy that featured prominently was forced to flee with his family and became a refugee and was then extensively interviewed and his story did not corroborate the video (he claimed he had been snatched off the street).

Does it matter any longer whether or not chemical weapons were used in Ghouta? The world has moved on. Possibly not. many of the people of Ghouta suffered death or displacement regardless. Were chemical weapons used? Maybe. But the perspective and judgement of our media may perhaps be clouded by their understandable sympathy for the poor miserable people of Ghouta and all they have endured. We must try hard to maintain our objectivity.

Patrick Cockburn wrote an interesting article in the Independent last week echoing a theme he has returned to again and again talking of the many lies that have changed history and stating that “fake news” has “heightened the perception that information, true or false, is always a weapon in somebody’s hands”.

We must at least be wary.

 

On the killing of Jamal Khashoggi

Writing the introduction to the Next Century Foundation’s Media Credibility Index shortly after the start of the Arab Spring, Jamal Khashoggi explained that he believed there were three clearly distinct eras in the growth of mass media in the Arab and Islamic Worlds. In the middle of the 20th century Cairo and Beirut were mass media and cultural hubs for the Arab and Islamic Worlds. Their dominance was brought to an end variously by factors such as the nationalization of Al Ahram and the Lebanese civil war. The era of the London based Saudi print media partially filled the vacuum that was thus created. But not until the launch of Aljazeera in Doha in 1996 did the Arab World’s mass media truly come of age.

“Wow” I thought. This man is on the button. Jamal was more of an acquaintance than a friend. Other members of my family knew him well, however, and he was close to us. Yes, I thought, the new Arab Media in all of its incarnations from bloggers to broadcasters has become a many headed hydra, almost uncontrollable because of its multi-faceted nature.

But there are those in the corridors of power in Cairo, Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Istanbul that want to restore the old order and re-establish control, those that dislike this new and subversive mass media. But there were also surprising gems of encouragement. For a brief moment in time Bahrain flirted with allowing an opposition newspaper. Kuwait post liberation from Saddam had an extraordinarily free press. And the mass media in Iraq was beyond belief, with more daily newspapers than there were days in the year.

Still the great powers, the giants of the Arab World, wanted to restore the status quo ante. And they set about doing this through creating a climate of fear. New repressive Media Laws were introduced in Cairo and Abu Dhabi that set a benchmark. Others followed these trend setters with enthusiasm. The incarceration of bloggers and tweeters became commonplace for the most minor of offences. And journalists most certainly had to watch their backs facing, at best, tremendous fines in the courts, and at worst, targeted assassination.

Jamal’s Response

Most of us grumbled about this. We did what we could at the NCF. My late father, Claud Morris, believed in the concept of “Peace Through Media” and in tribute to that we established The International Council for Press and Broadcasting (subsequently merged with the International Communications Forum associated with Initiatives of Change) and launched The International Media Awards. We even changed the ethos of the NCF to one of support for Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms in order to better justify our stand for Media Freedom.

Jamal wanted more. He felt the world should not just talk about it but should do something about it. He decided on a scheme whereby you could get round the new Western controls on alternative media. This needs a little explanation. The big media platforms in the Middle East are forums like Facebook and Twitter. We at the NCF launched an ideological Facebook page in Arabic called Al Khawatir (reflections) and found that with a budget of $20 a week and a few ideologically driven interns to write posts we could develop a following of a million a month in unhappy places in the Middle East like Algiers, Tripoli, Cairo, Riyadh, Sanaa or Baghdad.

Facebook was strong everywhere. Twitter was particularly strong in Saudi Arabia and is currently in the ascendancy everywhere, perhaps because it is a favoured method of imparting the thoughts of the great and the good. The under thirties may have started the trend. But Arab politicians like Sheikh Khalid, the current Foreign Minister of Bahrain and influential diplomats like the former Qatar Ambassador to London, Nasser al Khalifa, were quick to build huge twitter followings with their passionate tweets in both Arabic and English and their relationship with their fans.

The difficulty for would be opposition tweeters is the controls that Twitter currently has. They have become necessary of course, to prevent trolls and to stop forms of abuse like one person – or government – holding multiple accounts. So you may not open a twitter account without providing a phone number for verification. A huge problem if you want to say what you think in the Middle East because a phone number can be traced one way or another and you may be subject to arbitrary arrest if you are not a member of the establishment. Or at least you would be frightened of the possibility of arrest.

And along comes Jamal. He sets up a scheme whereby he and a friend in Canada would buy hundreds of sim cards. Then if you wanted to start a twitter account all you would need to do was to message Jamal or his friend by one of the more confidential platforms available, WhatsApp for example. And Jamal’s friend would set up a one-time simcard for you in Canada that you could use to enter for verification of the twitter account and he would send you back the verification code from Canada and the authorities in Saudi Arabia could never trace you.

The Consequence

Of course social media is powerful. Remember the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt was largely Facebook fanned and encouraged. The old adage, the pen is mightier than the sword might be rewritten, the pen encourages the sword of retribution. Or rather the finger on the smartphone in today’s world.

Had that been the all of it maybe it could have been overlooked. But that was not the half of it. Jamal was an activist with numerous projects. There was another project with the working title, “Democracy for the Arab World Now”. That too was dangerous.

However, most dangerous of all were his columns in the Post, the Washington Post. Had he been the usual ranting fanatic oppositionist he might just have been ignorable. But he was not. Jamal was considered and thoughtful. He was fair in his analysis and honest but modest in his criticism. He was the most dangerous kind of critic.

The rumour that Jamal had his fingers cut off before he was killed appears to have been apocryphal. But the fact that such a horrific story circulated underscores the savage symbolism surrounding this one man’s death. There were those in the corridors of power who believed Jamal had to be silenced. It had to be done. He was uniquely dangerous.

And it was done. Brutally, cruelly, with Mafia-like ruthlessness. The killing was effective and, arguably, has done what it was expected to do in regard to the repression of freedom of speech.

There has been a cost of course, a cost to the Saudi Arabian establishment, a storm indeed. But perhaps that remains a cost they can bear. The intention may certainly have been to send a more discreet and equivocal message. But the message is what has mattered. People will think twice in future before they kick against the establishment in such a dangerous way. Try to use matches and you may get burned.

Was this unique?

So, is Jamal’s killing worse than other politically motivated assassinations? We have seen it happen again and again. Sometimes the killings are not high profile. The NCF took a press delegation to visit Arafat days before his death and he was fit as flee demonstrating his push ups. I was always convinced he was assassinated and was always bothered by the refusal to allow an autopsy. So often the killings never make the headlines. The snatching of the NCF’s hostage negotiator, Abu Innas, off the sidewalk in Al Adhamiyah Baghdad by the police, never to be seen again. But assassinations are so commonplace are they not? Was Jamal’s killing worse than others. More brutal and brazen than most perhaps. But not of itself worse than others. All murder is evil. State sanctioned murder is worse than evil and those responsible and those complicit by their silence will no doubt face their God someday and have to give account for their behaviour.

But some would conclude that Jamal’s murder may be worse in its outcome because its ripples will mean that freedom of expression is set back. Will it not?

Well I don’t know. Possibly not. Possibly the calls for freedom of speech will be amplified by Jamal’s death. The killing of Jamal has done much to highlight the issue. Now it is up to us to do something to ensure that his death is neither forgotten nor in vain.

A prayer for America at the mid-terms

This came in tonight from Reverend Larry Wright, Convenor of the Religious Affairs Advisory Council:

God of justice, we pray for the people and nation of America at this crucial time.

May the land of the bold and the free give true expression to its highest historic ideals.

A nation divided is a nation brought low; so good Lord, may a state of unity prevail in America, may the prayers and aspirations of millions be answered with hope, and may all that is good and true and just be manifest in the destiny of America, under God; in who we trust.

Amen

Kurdistan elections – the final results

Weeks after the Kurdistan Region held parliamentary elections on September 30, the election commission has published official results:
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) achieved 688,070 votes, giving it a big lead over its rivals, securing 45 seats in the 111-seat parliament – leaving it 12 seats shy of an outright majority. The party will therefore need to enter a coalition agreement to form a government.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) came in second with 319,219 votes, securing 21 seats. This marks an improvement on its 2013 result of 18 seats.

The Change Movement (Gorran) was pushed into third place with 186,903 votes, securing just 12 seats – down from 24 in the last parliament.

New Generation got 127,115 votes, securing eight seats.

Komal seven seats.

The joint Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)-Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) Reform List won five seats. When the KIU ran alone in 2013, it secured 10.

The leftist Modern coalition one seat.

The Communist Party, as part of the Azadi List, secured one seat.

The Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), which officially boycotted the election, failed to secure a seat.

Of the 11 seats reserved for the Kurdistan Region’s minority groups, the Turkmen secured five, the Christians five, and the Armenians one. No seats are reserved for the Yezidis.

Among the Turkmen parties, the Turkmen Development Party secured two seats, the Nation List one, the Turkmen Reform party one, and the Turkmen Front one.

Among the Christian parties, the Rafidain List secured one seat, the Assyrian Syriac Chaldean Popular Council one, and the National Union Coalition three.

An Armenian independent secured one seat.

The election commission also published figures detailing which candidates secured the most votes for each list:

Qubad Talabani, head of the PUK list, won 182,000. Shaswar Abdulwahid, head of New Generation, won 106, 289. Ali Hama Salih, head of the Gorran list, won 81,934. Hemin Hawrami, head of the KDP list, won 47,000.

The election commission had delayed the announcement of official results while it investigated several allegations of fraud.

The commission decided to annul the results of 96 polling stations, voiding around 119,000 votes. The majority of annulled ballots were in Erbil province.
A number of opposition parties threatened to boycott the next parliament if the preliminary results were approved by the commission. There are no substantial differences between the preliminary results and official figures.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) issued a statement following the results urging people – in the interests of public safety –not to shoot firearms into the air in celebration.

Summarised Breakdown of seats by party:

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – 45 seats
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – 21 seats
Gorran – 12 seats
New Generation – 8 seats
Komal – 7 seats
Reform List – 5 seats
Modern Coalition – 1 seat
Azadi List – 1 seat

11 minority quota seats as follows:

Turkmen:

Turkmen Development Party – 2
Nation List – 1
Turkmen Reform party – 1
Turkmen Front – 1

Christian:

Rafidain List – 1
Assyrian Syriac Chaldean Popular Council – 1
National Union Coalition – 3

Armenian:

Independent – 1