Freedom of Religion in Iraq and Bahrain

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 on 2nd March 2018, the special report on Freedom of Religion:

Mr President. Freedom of Religion is one of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” and is a basic pillar of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Middle East is riven by a sectarian divide within Islam between the Sunni and Shiite sects, the consequences of which have been dire. Levels of hatred in this internecine strife have now reached unprecedented heights.

The Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Bahrain are two nations on the faultline of this disturbing rift and both have national elections this year.

The Iraq elections are unlikely to generate full participation from the Sunni community. If the majority of the Sunni community were to boycott these elections out of a sense of vengeful resentment of the Iraq central government it would be a grave error.  New Sunni politicians untainted by the past are emerging in areas like Anbar province. It would be wrong to disempower them at a time when their voices should be heard.

Bahrain’s elections will be held later this year and as in 2014, the Islamic Republic of Iran is likely to put pressure on Bahrain’s Shiite community leaders to encourage the non-participation of the Shiite community as a whole in the forthcoming elections.  This nonparticipation serves no purpose other than to weaken the voice of that community. It is essential that Bahrain’s Shiites participate fully in the forthcoming elections. Thank you.

Ruminations of a Sufi Master

Sufism is a means of focussing away from the commonplace, and the temporal, and transcending oneself as a means of encountering unity with God.

The absolute otherness of God is central to the Sufi approach. While humankind may perceive, comprehend and aspire to the attributes of God; such as Justice, Truth, Love and Mercy, the Essence of God is unknowable through the usual human means of knowing. This unknowability is the realm which Sufis endeavour to inhabit; the way of mystery and wonder. For Sufis the material world is a manifestation of God therefore all nature is imbued with the Divine while having its own temporal existence. God is the Prime Mover, the Progenitor and yet transcends space and time.  This is far from being a cause for humanity feeling abandoned by God in creation, rather a spur to search for the means by which we may glimpse the essence of the Creator through devotional practice, study and opening the heart and mind to a higher level of enlightenment. Such a life committed to seeking God is of necessity all-consuming. Religious language, practice and ethics draw us near to the Divine but the way of the Sufi is beyond traditional confessional faith structures and institutions; it is the way of the mystic, the spiritual pilgrim who is longing and striving to experience God is a way beyond knowing.

This God, who is the beginning and the end of all existence, is also the author of all existence so we, as humankind, are ourselves manifestations of God. Such an elevated view of humanity is a source of hope for a human universalism; if all could recognise our essential oneness with each other all ethnic, gender, religious or ideological differences would melt away. The Sufi is in this sense the vanguard of a New Humanity.

All world religions are subject to the limitations of their projections of God and God’s purposes. These projections are often based upon fear rather than love hence the tendency to binary opposites: Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Sinner and Saved etc.  These are well meant but are misconceptions; they detract from the Ultimate search for God and leave us in half-way state of comprehension and understanding. The Sufi pursues the essence of God and conceives it obliquely through the Beautiful and the Good; all that is life giving and life enhancing in the world. The Sufi is a practitioner of love in this world as their identity rests not upon any human esteem but on the deep understanding that they are loved by God in a reciprocal relationship of lover and loved.

“Soul, if you want to learn secrets, your heart must forget about shame and dignity. You are God’s lover…” Rumi

The above reflections on Sufism were penned by Rev Larry Wright, Convenor of the Religious Affairs Advisory Group, following an evening in discussion with Ayatollah Safavi, a man who radiates the calm, intelligent, enlightened personae of a dedicated and seasoned devotee. As a Sufi master he commands the respect and admiration not only of his followers but of people of good will from other faiths and none. As an Iranian he embodies the traditions of Persian and Shia Islamic culture with their poetic imagination and natural wonder.

Safavi shared his discourse  on the Sufi approach to The Divine, the Ultimate Cause;  God for some, Allah for others.  He began with a meditative chant or mantra which is part of his daily practice for centring his being and mind upon God.  Such practice is indication of the highly prayerful and mystical nature of Sufism.

Press Freedom in Bahrain

The following is a written intervention by the NCF to the United Nations in Geneva:

Freedom of Expression is one of the greatest freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19 of which states “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It is sad to see that the Kingdom of Bahrain has fallen to 164th position in the ranking of the 175 nations assessed for the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. This index ranks Bahrain slightly above Sudan, Syria and Saudi Arabia but below all other Arab nations.

The reform program introduced by His Majesty the King of Bahrain has, by and large, been exemplary. The King expressed a particular interest in promoting freedom of expression in Bahrain. It was with the active encouragement of His Majesty the King that Al-Wasat Newspaper was established in Bahrain.

The establishment of Al-Wasat widened freedom of expression, in part by encouraging the people of Bahrain to express their own views in what had thus become a diverse media spectrum.

Many of the interlocutors in the current Universal Periodic Review of the Kingdom of Bahrain have expressed a desire to encourage greater press freedom in Bahrain. Countries making reference to the issue include Montenegro / Slovenia / United Kingdom / Denmark / France / Spain / Mexico / New Zealand / Switzerland / United States of America / Canada / Estonia / Cyprus / State of Palestine / Germany / Iceland / Italy / Lebanon / Australia / Lithuania / Luxemburg / Austria.

We would like to join our voice to theirs. It is sad to note that Al-Wasat Newspaper was closed down by the Government of the Kingdom of Bahrain on 4th June 2017. Whatever the reasons for this action, were this action to be reversed it would be of great benefit to democratic progress in Bahrain, and give the Kingdom of Bahrain a far better image in the eyes of the world at large.

Bahrain was once regarded by some as the best country in the Gulf with regard to freedom of media. It would be to the benefit of all of the nations of the Gulf were Bahrain to maintain the high standards of press freedom for which it was once noted. Bahrain can and should be an example to the region. To allow Al-Wasat Newspaper to again run its presses would be a gracious and positive gesture and one worthy of international acknowledgement.

Love

God made this universe from love,
For Him to be the father of,
What duty more exquisite is,
Than loving with a love like His?
A better task no one can ever ask.

Rahman Baba, Peshawar

How about Loving Yemen?

And then there was Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at this time.

And who fights this war? From the air, it is the Gulf Arab states. From the ground it is, additionally, mercenaries from Pakistan and Sudan, plus a very few Yemenis still loyal to the remnant of the internationally recognised government of Yemen that ran away.

And on the other side? A Houthi-led band of assorted Yemeni rebels in the North, and (quite separately and not allied to the first band) Al-Qaida in the South. Admittedly an oversimplification, but that’s basically it.

And the internationally recognised, Saudi-backed government has retreated to Saudi Arabia and lost credibility. And the way forward? Peace talks. But the Saudi Arabian-led coalition of Gulf states seems reluctant to engage in peace talks that do not result in the surrender of their enemies.

That said, the Houthis are not invariably a pleasant bunch. They chant obscenities like “Death to the USA. Death to Israel”, from their mosques. They do not sound like the kind of guys you’d want to have go out with your daughter.

So the answer for Yemen, in my view, is partition. The North took over the South through conquest. In my own lifetime Yemen has been two countries: North Yemen and South Yemen. And these fiercely independent and warlike people were easier to get on with as two separate nations.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia should give up its dreams of hegemony over North Yemen. Let it go. It’s not worth it. Let her breathe. Give her a chance to grow up on her own.

The Saudis should be content with taking over South Yemen as a puppet state. Bring prosperity to South Yemen. Take it into the G.C.C. (the Gulf Cooperation Council).

This is a war of attrition. You can never defeat them. Best to leave them alone.

Poor Egypt and poor Sinai

Poor Egypt. Can you imagine it? Prices of goods have gone through the roof, including the price of basic foodstuffs. These are harsh times.

Meanwhile, even the elite suffer, with the introduction of more draconian taxes.

However, President Sisi remains moderately popular. America still continues to provide huge financial support to the Egyptian army. And there is still some Gulf money coming in, though less than there once was. And nobody wants more revolution and counter revolution. So, for now, Egyptians are patient. They have no choice. Indeed, many are fiercely loyal to President Sisi.

The one source of income that truly filters through to the people in Egypt is tourism. But this is an industry that limps along at best. What, then, can be done?

Peace in the Sinai would make such a difference. Each time there is trouble from the Arabs of the Sinai, its sets Egyptian tourism back on its heels.

Of course, it’s not just that. Each time there is an attack on a Coptic church. Each time there is a killing of any kind like the killing of the Italian PHD student, Giulio Regeni in 2016, tourism is knocked back severely.

The thing is that Egypt has never quite got the knack of dealing with its social, political and ethnic minorities, like the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Copts, the Sinai Arabs and the Nubians. But they are Egypt. All of them. Egypt is a mosaic.

And the best starting point in sorting out the conundrum that is Egypt would be to deal with the Sinai Arabs. And to deal with them in a spirit of brotherly love.

All that is needed is one major industrial project in the unhappy town of Al Arish, Sinai’s de facto capital. A steelworks or something. It would change the mood of the people of Sinai, and potentially mark the beginning of the end for extremism in Egypt.

Both Sudan and South Sudan in aching need of a little brotherly love

Sudan was once the largest country in Africa at a million square miles. Then the British ripped it into two using the pretext of a referendum on a rigged ballot in which South Sudanese refugees and those displaced to the North were denied the vote. All this “for the good of Sudan”.

It is way past time for us to stop “playing the Great Game”. We are not good at it and we were never good at it.

And now the North is riven by war, and South Sudan is riven by war. And come the day they solve that, they will probably start fighting each other.

Unless, that is, we start seeing a little brotherly love.

And the easiest conflict to solve is the worst of conflicts, that in the South Sudan between Southerners backing the President and Southerners backing the exiled Vice President.

President of South Sudan, the war leader Salva Kiir, sits in Juba, the capital. The exiled vice president, his political rival Reik Machar, sits in South Africa. And church leaders go back and forth between them. Which doesn’t work.

What is needed is a conference for representatives of both sides to come together. And not in South Sudan. Nor in South Africa. Nor in any other Arab or African country, all of which will be regarded as parti-pris.

No, it should be in Britain. After all, we were the ones who created the mess in the first place.

And why not go for the whole deal while we are about it. A conference on all the issues of the South and the North, as all the issues are interrelated, with Northerners fighting for factions in the South and vice-versa. Indeed, with everyone fighting each other.

Worth a shot wouldn’t you say? Perhaps we’ll try it. Somebody should.

Iraq – a Practical Approach to Reconstruction

There are a whole raft of issues in the much fought-over country called Iraq: the Kurdish question; the 2018 elections; getting rid of ISIS; and the rest.

One certainty is that we in the West have bombed countless homes into oblivion in the battle to defeat ISIS. One US strike on Mosul on 17th March of this year, targeting two ISIS fighters on a roof, killed almost 200 people, according to the Human Rights Watch. Whether or not you view Human Rights Watch as a credible source what is indisputable is that much of central Mosul has been obliterated.

Meanwhile there are refugees all over the place in makeshift camps. I hate and have always hated UN speak, whereby refugees who do not cross borders are called IDPs or “internally displaced persons”. A refugee is a refugee is a refugee.

Some of these refugees are the widowed wives of ISIS fighters who, along with their children, are kept in prison camps. They hate us of course. And nobody knows what to do with them.

An answer, not just to the ISIS wives but also to help ameliorate the wider refugee problem, would be to divert Western aid money to post conflict Iraq and to specifically use it to construct social housing in areas we have bombed in the past two to three years. Just the areas we have bombed. Just the houses we have destroyed. To do so is honourable. It was not our intention to hit civilians – but hit them we did. We had good reason for making the air strikes we made. But where we were culpable for the collateral damage and we could and should make amends.

Northern Ireland – the Economy becomes a political issue

Many of us believe in the vision of the Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, that of a world without frontiers. I have always disliked nationalism. My creed is all for one and one for all in a brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind.

But I understand nationalism in all its dimensions. I dislike it but I understand it. Irish nationalism, like its cousins in other nations, is an impassioned crucible of love. So it is easy to understand why Sinn Fein wishes to retain its status as a pan-Irish movement. Just as it is easy to understand why so many want an open border between North and South for the free movement of goods.

That’s fine. So why are the Brexit negotiations so pedantically framed that the Irish Border issue comes up for resolution before the trade deal is signed? If there is a successful trade deal there will be no need for a border agreement because goods can and will flow freely regardless. The cart has been put before the horse.

The Brexit vote forced on the British people because of David Cameron’s fear of an emergent UKIP was divisive at best. But it is done. The sooner we get on with life and put it behind us the better. The European Union should be more considerate and less obstreperous.

More considerate because outside the Oxbridge-London-Sussex bubble that remains comfortably isolated from the nation at large, many simply do not care whether there’s a no-deal Brexit. Do your own straw poll if you like. The results may astound you. Many outside of London are more than happy to see the UK crash out of Europe without a deal.

Cutting off your nose to spite your face? Maybe. But Britain imports more from Europe than it sells to Europe, so it’s not the end of the world. But for Ireland and the spirit of the Northern Ireland agreement, the consequences could be dire. Because once you slap in that border, even if only for goods traffic, Irish nationalists may perhaps be enraged.

Economy of Effort – the least difficult way forward in regard to Libya

There are four governments in Libya now:

  • One is the old Congress in Tripoli that won’t go away;
  • Another is General Haftar’s gang that rules the East;
  • Another is the internationally recognised government;
  • And the fourth is the UN-sponsored amalgam whose remit is to bring peace to the country.

And the international powers watch Libya burn. None bar Italy actually have an embassy in Tripoli. The rest of us watch from afar, though it was us who created this mess.

Italy has her reasons for being more proactively engaged of course, the migrant issue being chief among them. The river of migrants from Africa cuts for the coast through chaos-ridden Libya, and hence through the Med to Italy.

A side-issue here. Italian PHD student Giulio Regeni was beaten to death in Egypt in January 2016. Apparently overzealous members of the security services had been prompted to ruthless murder because of his having met Muslim Brotherhood members as part of research for his thesis on trade unionism.

Italy broke off diplomatic relations with Egypt in protest. So Egypt used its influence over General Haftar of Libya to get him to turn off the tap and stop the migration to Italy. Which Haftar, who had clout with the traffickers, rapidly did. As a consequence, Italy renewed its diplomatic ties with Egypt in September 2017.

Meanwhile, ironically, someone Haftar had no power over re-commenced the trafficking. Haftar had cut migration to a trickle. Now, once again, it is a flood.

We the people of Europe pay a price for the Anglo-French adventure in Libya. Unless, that is, you favour the continuation of this gruellingly cruel migration route

But have any of us the courage to have a diplomatic mission in Tripoli, Libya? No. Well only Italy amongst the countries of the world, and they have no real choice.

Understandable, perhaps. They all left for good soon after the US ambassador was murdered in Benghazi.

But now the killing of the wonderful Chris Stephens in 2012 must be put behind us. It’s time to go back, and go back we must. It is an easy and economical step for which there may be huge dividends, and without which the tide of migrants will almost inevitably continue. It is a step we can and must take.

 

Get Real on Russia

Russia hates the West and the West hates Russia. Or so it seems much of the time. All that Russian dastardliness over Ukraine for a start. From a Russian perspective, places like Ukraine and Syria have always fallen within their hegemony, and we in the West are trying to muscle in on their patch. Which is of course true. We are doing just that.

In regard to Russia the scales are reversed. There is far too much emphasis on Russia’s hegemonic misdeeds which are minor in comparison to those of the West (e.g. the catastrophic Anglo-French promotion of war in Libya despite Russian misgivings).

And meanwhile human rights abuses in Russia are almost utterly ignored.

In Russia it is now a crime to “Deny Traditional Family Values” (an anti-gay measure). In Russia, any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment is no longer a crime. And now there are murmurs about a proposed draconian anti-abortion law to appease the Orthodox Church. We need constructive dialogue with Russia. It is in their interest and it is in our interest.

Meanwhile it was extraordinary to hear British Premier Theresa May accusing Russia of interference in Western elections the other day in her Mansion House speech. We in the West were past masters at interfering in Soviet elections back in the day. We had a whole disinformation department established by my late father’s friend Lord Mayhew. It was called the IRD, or the Information Research Department. It was disbanded by Lord Owen during his tenure as Foreign Secretary in 1977. But that didn’t stop us interfering in the last Russian elections – or that at least is the Russian perception. Nor does it stop us from putting ruthless pressure on Russia even at the most petty level, such as the recent moves to freeze the Russia Today bank account in the UK by the National Westminster Bank.

We need to be wiser and less petty and work together with Russia to build a safer world. Our petty politics should end. Another Cold War serves nobody.