Of Boris and of Banning the Burkas

The following represents the personal view of the NCF Secretary General and does not necessarily represent an NCF position:

There are two issues here. One is that the full face covering is a Mediaeval practice and one that is abusive in so much as it enshrines the doctrine of male dominance over the female. In a sense it degrades women.

It may be right to speak out against this practice.

However, even the birds of the air have need of nests. And whatever the rights and wrongs of that great cultural leveler, migration, one thing is certain, we are responsible for welcoming the migrant that arrives at these shores in a way which does not foster prejudice and hatred. Britain’s former Foreign Secretary’s remarks were calculated. They were written by Boris Johnson in a newspaper editorial. They are abusive of women in themselves, comparing those who practice full face veiling to pillar boxes with slits. Furthermore his manner provokes those already inflamed with Islamophobia (often exacerbated by but not because of the recent terror attacks) into further hatred. The former Foreign Secretary behaved as a racist. The sentiment behind his words, a concern about what the full face veil represents, may echo genuine concern for those women who choose, sometimes of their own volition, to do this to themselves. But he had no right to say that in that way. Not a man who may become our next Prime Minister.

Two wrongs do not make a right. Boris Johnson was therefore quite wrong. He should apologise. And if it was not his intention to foster religious hatred, he should apologise at least for the unwitting effect his remarks had.

Christ told us not to judge “Lest we be judged”. But there is an expectation that politicians in a position of leadership make considered judgements on our behalf. Boris’ remarks were unwise. Boris’ remarks can hardly have helped in these difficult times.

We should do better. But should we ban the burka and the headscarf like they do in France and Finland? Well maybe there is an argument for banning the hoody in young men and the burka in women because they are socially divisive and threatening. But not the headscarf. The French have gone overboard there. Women in the West have worn headscarves for generations as a fashion statement. And old fashioned European Catholics have always worn headscarves. The Muslim headscarf may be more concealing but is still just a cultural extension of the same thing and we should all find it in our hearts to accept it.

ISD’s YouthCAN Lab, Brussels – an optimistic hive of youth activism

Violent extremism and hate speech continue to be two of the most pernicious threats to life in Western Europe today, and are too often a reality for countless groups and individuals made to feel marginalised in their own homes and online. It not only perpetuates division and fear between groups, it also can isolate those most at risk of slipping further down the stream of extremism. That makes events like the Institute of Strategic Dialogue’s Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN) Lab in Brussels particularly important, and particularly promising. 

The workshop

Typically, these 2-day workshops bring together roughly 30 participants from around the world and from diverse backgrounds, drawing them together through a shared passion for civil activism and an ambition to enact real change in communities at home and abroad. The group I joined included Belgian Imams countering extremism daily in local prisons, and communities like Molenbeek in Western Brussels – home to at least three of the Paris 2015 attackers – alongside grassroots student activists and members of the global campaign #TurnToLove, the group whose poignant messages of peace and unity filled newspapers in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena Bombing. People of all faiths and none, from India to Slovenia, joined together to exchange personal stories of marginalisation, hate speech and even attempted recruitment, in an effort to learn, share and teach about what makes a compelling counter-narrative to those of hate, fear, insecurity and ignorance.

The lab itself, run by ISD and generously supported by the King Baudouin Foundation, encouraged a healthy mix of informal dialogue, panel discussions and lectures to teach us participants about successful online campaigns and grassroots projects making waves throughout Belgium. We were given insights by, among many others, Youcef Naimi of CEAPIRE, an Antwerp-based organisation offering training, prevention and support to counter radicalism in Muslim communities; and Ihsane Haouach who, through the Talented Youth Network (TYN) in Brussels, works directly with young people at the community level, to foster engagement and unity to overcome the pull towards extremism. We were also given training into campaign strategy and social media analytics; giving us the tools needed to create our very own campaigns.

The remainder of the lab was spent in groups, divided by sub categories like ‘youth’, ‘faith’ and ‘gender’, and set free to build our own campaigns, to then be presented at the end of the workshop to a panel of insiders. These sessions gave us the opportunity to interact with the others in our groups to share expertise and ideas; and gave us an insight into designing a campaign from the foundations up. This prompted us to think about targeting, message and monitoring of prospective campaigns and helped us form the bare bones of the projects.

A few criticisms

The issue though was that much of these skills seemed to be applicable to any online marketing campaign. Somewhat lacking was any in-depth context framing the practices of extremist groups themselves or indeed exposing attendees to some of the messages deployed by these groups. It would have been valuable to be given an insight into how these groups recruit members, communicate between themselves, and/or target and disseminate their information, as well as engage in online activity like ‘raids’, the use of ‘bots’, or campaign hijacking. Some access to comprehensive field research might have been useful, as would a specific session focused on research into our particular target groups and their demographics, motivations and so forth, rather than merely brainstorming sessions. I often felt that for us to be expected to create an effective, targeted campaign, each group should have had access to input from experts on those extremist groups themselves. Instead, it felt as though we were creating campaigns on behalf of the marginalised but which would only resonate with those already sympathetic to their struggle, without really knowing who we needed to convince or how we could go about doing so

The second key issue with the event was one of structure and (understandably) constrained time. Being only a 2-day event meant that it was difficult to both educate us about online campaigning and extremism; and build our campaigns from the foundations up. I felt that for either of these tasks to be done thoroughly, they would each require 2 days alone, or at the very least a whole day committed to creating the campaign. In reality, we spent a few 10-15 minute sessions thinking through conceptual ideas for the campaign, interspersed with lectures and presentations, then only 45 minutes to fully create a whole campaign message and strategy, and consider logistics. Perhaps this might have been enough for groups whose target audience was other ‘young people’ and their message about general political open-mindedness (which one of the campaigns sought to address); but for such a complex and pervasive issue as Islamophobia among lower-middle-class and working-class whites in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, such brevity simply made any thorough campaign design impossible. In this sense, the event did seem somewhat overly ambitious or its programme poorly balanced.

The campaigns

Nevertheless, the workshop produced several potential online social media campaigns, designed to break into echo chambers and provoke engagement by offering alternative narratives to those of mistrust and hatred, pedalled by extremist groups online. One campaign, titled #MyValues, sought to counter the fear among some white working-class Western European groups, of Islam, fuelled by a misperception of the religion as one of violence and hate. It imagined Muslim citizens integrated in their local communities, and engaged in acts of day-to-day compassion and unity; their good deeds all underpinned by values of kindness and respect, so familiar to their extremist opponents, yet themselves informed by Islamic scripture so feared by them. In stark contrast, another campaign tackled the conservative views of older generations, by inspiring young people online to “Make Our ‘Grannies’ Cool Again”, informing them about the threat of fake news and offering information to people’s less technologically savvy relations.

The campaigns themselves were imbued with a tremendous sense of hope; and the enthusiasm of the participants to foster real change online and in their own communities. What the ISD’s YouthCAN Lab demonstrated, was real willingness on the part of young global activists, to counter the most damaging messages of hate they see online daily. It also showed the promise of such fledgling projects, powerfully put forward by a dynamic group with real insights into social media and an understanding of grassroots, online extremism. I’d like to see future YouthCAN events more focused on certain categories of extremism. While the four campaigns were diverse and innovative in their own ways, a greater division of labour in two larger groups may have allowed more thorough research into targets, message and monitoring. This might replace four half-formed and un-costed potential campaigns with two comprehensive, research-driven and immediately implementable campaigns.

The YouthCAN lab in Brussels was undoubtedly a positive experience and certainly productive in bringing together diverse young activists and in giving them the most crucial tools to build their own grassroots and online campaigns. There were also clear ways in which the experience could have been improved. In truth, much of this simply came down to time; but much could also have been improved by dividing the event up in larger blocs, one focused on education, the other on implementation and campaign planning. This is, however, certainly not to overlook the success, importance and enjoyability of the workshop – and other events like it run by the ISD – or to deny the sense of hope derived from having so many enthusiastic and inventive young activists working together to counter the hate and extremism so sadly widespread in our communities and on the internet.

Nematollahi persecution in Iran: derision and violence solves nothing

Since 2005, tensions between the Iranian authorities and the largest Sufi sect in the country, the Nematollahi Gonobadi, have been rising. The Dervishes that make up the sect prescribe to a form of Shia Sufism. However, their beliefs differ from mainstream Iranian Islam, leading to declarations that the sect is ‘weakening Islam’ and that they are ‘political agitators’ becoming common. Now houses of worship are being destroyed, Gonobadis are being detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and their practices being suppressed. This harassment of the Gonobadis by the IRGC has resulted in sporadic outbreaks of violence by Gonobadis against the Iranian security services.

The most recent example was the Gonabadi Dervishes’ protest in Northern Tehran. The protest occurred in response to the arrest of one of their community leaders, Nematollah Riahi, and the lack of clarity regarding where he has been detained and what the charges against him are. Six men were reported dead in the aftermath of the protest: five members of the security services and one member of the Gonabadi sect. Government news organizations have portrayed the event as an aggressive mob attacking both civilians and police alike, whereas other media sources have argued protesters were heard declaring that they did not want violence but felt there was no other option following aggressive police interventions. Three hundred arrests have now been made. These arrests are not a new phenomenon. A number of Gonobadis have been arrested in Iran under ‘National Security’ laws, and multiple protests by the Gonobadis have taken place. There is, understandably, a sense within the Gonobadi community that they are being persecuted unfairly. The fact that the arrest of Nematollah Riahi is shrouded in mystery only entrenches this belief.

However, these violent outbreaks leading to the death of policemen will only escalate tensions. There is a desperate need now for communication between the Iranian authorities and the sect. The Dervish leader, Nour Ali Tabandeh, condemned the violence committed by the members of his sect and offered his condolences to the families of the security services killed at the protest. These calls for non-violence are vital and must be heeded by the sect if tensions between the Gonobadis and the Iranian authorities are to abate.

Unfortunately, the Government response to the attack has been hostile. Following the demonstration, a police spokesman, Saeed Montazer Al-Mehdi was quoted decrying the deaths of two of the Basij paramilitary force, an organisation loosely affiliated with the IRGC, at the hands of a ‘superstitious cult’. This sentiment was shared by government media, who referred to the event as an attack by a ‘Dervish Cult’. Using this kind of derogatory language about what after all is the largest Sufi sect in Iran will only further antagonise the community. Additionally, as long as the government maintains a narrative that is at odds with coverage from alternative media sources, fears within the Gonobadi sect that they cannot work with the Iranian authorities will be reinforced and the likelihood that they will continue to resort to violence will be greater. Dialogue, compromise, and transparency are now crucial in order to prevent further tragedy.

Political insecurity in Iran is currently a major issue. These Gonabadi demonstrations come on the heels of some of the largest economic and social protests Iran has ever seen back in December and January. A constant criticism leveled at the Sufi community is that they are political agitators and want to destabilise the Iranian government. These allegations have often triggered persecution and arrests. It would be easy during this time of political uncertainty to further suppress the Gonabadi community. However, to do so will have a lasting impact on Sufi relations in Iran. In order to maintain peace and prevent further tragedy, it is important to recognise a people’s desire for rights as just that, and open a dialogue, rather than belittle them as political agitators within a ‘superstitious cult’. Such dogmatic derision will simply further cyclical violence.

Don’t Forget Me

And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).

This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.

However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.

We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.

But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.

The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.

The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.

But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?

On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.

On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?

And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.

I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.

So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.

During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.

At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.

Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.

And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.

During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.

This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.

It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.

People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.

It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.

And speaking of smiles.

Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.

We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.

By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.

My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.

Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.

Ciao NCF, a presto!

Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra

#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf

 

Poland’s authoritarian turn?

The recent decision by Poland’s government to pass a law that weakens the judiciary’s independence raises concerns on the overall soundness of the Polish democratic system. The law by which the government acquires de facto control of the Supreme Court represents a heavy blow dealt to one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary.

Such a decision is a cause for great concern as it represents the pinnacle of a more general trend of recent reforms that are dismantling the democratic tissue of the Country. Since 2015, Law and Justice, also known as PiS – the ruling right-wing populist party in Poland – has been implementing policies and reforms aimed at limiting civil liberties, controlling media and dismantling some of the major checks and balances in place since the end of the Soviet era. While the European Union is closely looking into this delicate issue and threatening the activation of a sanctions mechanism, protests broke out all over the country in response to this illiberal conduct from the Polish government.

Such an immoral turn for Polish politics, however, was hardly unexpected. The PiS is an unorthodox populist party whose members are unpredictable mavericks with no sense of responsibility. Playing games with people’s rights is standard procedure for them. The most glaring example is the controversial immigration policy in force in the country since 2015. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq have been progressively denied asylum in Poland on a simple matter of religious belief. Poland indeed is one of those eastern European countries which has recently engaged in the contentious strategy of favouring Christian refugees as eligible for their resettlement scheme.

While a blade, a bullet or a bomb does not make any distinction between a Christian or a Muslim refugee making all men equal when faced with war or persecution, the enlightened leaders of Poland cynically reserve the right to decide on the fate of thousands of innocent lives on the grounds of their religious faith. Fairly odd for a country which suffered similar discrimination and illiberal laws not such a long time ago and whose social identity is proudly claimed to be based on Christian values. But as we all know, people have a bad memory and they learn very little from history. Do not be surprised if democratic countries such as Poland in 2017 still impose limits on civil liberties, still exert control over media or judiciary, still discriminate against people on grounds of religion. Sit down and make yourself comfortable, a new era of populism is about to start.

On Power and Leadership, Love and Hope

The following report is the first in a new monthly series from the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General. It represents the personal view of the NCF Secretary General and should not be regarded as an NCF perspective:

British Prime Minister Theresa May continues to serve as a world leader out of a sense of duty. The 1922 Committee that controls the Conservative Party to which she owes her allegiance is frightened to allow her to fall on her sword. So a lame duck Premier limps on past her sell-by date, an embarrassment to the nation at a critical time, with the Brexit negotiations collapsing around her ears.

Why is the 1922 Committee so very frightened? Evidently because the leader of the opposition, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, is both charismatic and effective. The Committee feels it needs to face like with like and, alas, there are just three charismatic public figures in today’s Tory Party with any real high-profile presence. They are:

Boris Johnson,

Boris Johnson and

Boris Johnson.

I had thought of including other names but there are only two bitter choices for the Conservative Party: either win the 2021 election with Boris – or lose it. A difficult choice, because the British Foreign Secretary is a wildcard, a maverick schemer and a narcissist. He is no predictable pragmatist. He despises Bashar Al-Assad, or so he claims, whilst seemingly being complacent about the blockade on Yemen. Boris as Premier is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The current Tory Party only has one other charismatic public speaker and that is the foppish Jacob Rees-Mogg. There is a drive to polish him up and bring him out of the dark ages and shape him into an alternative to Boris, but that would perhaps represent too great a challenge. Difficult times for Britain, because to limp on with Theresa is to lose all credibility.

Iran faces a similar challenge. President Trump intends to defer to congress the decision on whether to reintroduce sanctions on Iran. This act of moral cowardice is no doubt prompted by his friends in Saudi Arabia and Israel, who so fear a hegemonic Iran. Iran for her part is concerned about the US returning to a hardline position. As a consequence, Iranian President Rohani has chosen to visit Oman and use the occasion to offer, astonishingly publicly, to reign in Iran’s client group, Hezbollah as well as encourage the Houthi of Yemen to attend peace talks. Curious that last point. Our experience at the Next Century Foundation in promoting second track discussions in Switzerland has been that the Saudis are the reluctant party when it comes to discussing peace. That aside, Iran’s offer on Hezbollah is nothing short of astonishing.

How does this impact on leadership? Well, Iran has made it clear in private discussion with the NCF that she will face a hardliner with a hardliner. Which means what? It means that if Trump’s hardline approach is to be the order of the day, then at the end of Rohani’s current term he will be replaced by Qasem Soleimani, the head of the foreign division of the Revolutionary Guard (the Quds Force) and a charismatic hardliner.

Charismatic leaders are in vogue. Sissi in Egypt, Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and the emergent Hadi Al-Amri in Iraq and Haftar in Libya are examples of hard men who through sheer grit and determination have seized or are seizing power.

We are moving out of an era of mediocrity, simply because the people of the nations of the world have had enough of the complacent establishment, that has led to an era of the rich-poor divide becoming more acute, and increasing globalization. There is a clear difference between commercial globalization with the uneven playing field that rewards the sweatshop and the polluter, and the advocacy of a world without frontiers, in which we should  all believe.

So the world has leaned, and is leaning, toward a preference for ‘What-you-see-is-what-you-get’, transparent leaders and protest ballots. Hence the Brexit vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Hence Trump. Hence Mohammed Bin Salman’s incredible popularity in Saudi Arabia. These are all anti-establishment trends.

Clearly people seek something new from their leaders. What I believe the people of the world now yearn for in leadership is integrity. That is far more than mere box-ticking honesty. Integrity is empowered honesty in action.  Integrity means that you mean what you say when you say it. But that is not to say that there isn’t still room for old-fashioned loyalty. Theresa May and Sultan Qaboos of Oman are both examples of people who live for loyalty, by loyalty, with loyalty. And that is admirable. Combine loyalty with genuine risk-taking integrity and you get a leader who may truly change the world.

And so to Love, the other quality necessary for leadership. Here we are not talking of sit-at-home, watch television and weep sort of love. We are talking of love-in-action. This means love for all those for whom you are responsible. I have just returned from Kirkuk in Iraq where, questioned about care for the refugees in his province, the Governor of Kirkuk told me, ‘They are not my responsibility’. His issue was that they couldn’t vote for him, so why should they vote?

This is not genuine leadership. Genuine leadership means that you take responsibility for everyone for whom you have responsibility, even if you don’t particularly like them. This is a key aspect of leadership. You do not have to like people to love them. There are those who advocate the practice of loving your enemies. That is the nature of truly great leaders. Sissi of Egypt and Al-Amri of Iraq, take note. Great leaders care for the minorities, for the vulnerable. You could do better if you wish to build the nations we know you cherish.

We seek heroes,

We need heroes,

We demand heroes.

And we expect heroic leaders to love us, to protect us, to nurture us, even if they don’t particularly like us. That way they earn our loyalty. And people can be incredibly loyal.

And when we meet gross failure in love and leadership, we must call those responsible to account. Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar for example, who has let herself down, let the world down and, most importantly of all, has let the people of Myanmar down by being complicant in the Rohingya genocide.

Cruelty in all its dimensions is unacceptable. May God have mercy on the souls of all those world leaders responsible for the blockade on Gaza. The collective punishment on a people is an act of great wrong, whether in Syria, Gaza, Yemen or in Qatar. Leadership without love is not leadership – it is oppression. Even Machiavelli understood the need for wodges of love. He advised his disciples that, if they needed to use a heavy hand to keep things in order, they should do so ruthlessly and severely, but then stop, let go and treat people well. For he recognized people deserve love and care, and must get it if stability is to be engendered.

And then there is hope. We have an obligation to hope. Indeed without hope the very fabric of the universe could fall apart. And there is much reason to hope. We live in one of the most peaceful eras in all human history. You don’t think so? Remember our parents lived through the twentieth century with its two World Wars, its genocides in Europe for the Jews, in Turkey for the Armenians, in Africa for the Tutsis. The Vietnam and Korean wars, plus the partition of India. I could go on and on. Names parade through my mind. Aden. Kenya. Uganda. Then famine on famine. Live Aid was not for nothing. Ah, and Sudan. Misery on misery on misery in the twentieth century. And so many miserable footnotes. Little Kashmir, for instance. A century defined by human suffering. Things are better now in terms of sheer numbers of the dead in wars: the world has improved.

Plus things have got better in terms of war avoidance. We, as already stated, are just back from Iraq. There could reasonably be a war- a new war – between Baghdad and Arbil in order to curb Kurdish aspirations for independence. There won’t be, because Washington and Tehran want war avoidance so that they can concentrate on the existing war against Daesh. They have said so both publicly and privately, which is hope in action. Leaders, just like the rest of humanity, but even more so, have an obligation to hope. Whichever obligation or duty the rest of us has to be moral, the responsibility on the shoulders of our leaders is greater still.

The women of the little Christian town of Alqosh in the Ninevah Plain keep suitcases by their bed in anticipation of the coming war. But now they can unpack. There will be no new war in Iraq. Hope? Write the word large. It is often all that we live for.

William Morris LL.D.

Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation 10 October 2017

In condemnation of the terrorist attacks

ash-2179184_960_720[1]

A day after the horrible terrorist attack on London Bridge and Borough Market in which seven people lost their life, the London Academy of Iranian Studies (LAIS) published the following article:

“The recent barbaric terrorist attacks in London and Manchester are the work of inhumane individuals. These acts of terror by individuals masquerading as Muslims, are against the very letter and spirit of the Qur’an and Islamic law. In Islamic law neither in peace nor war, is it permissible to kill civilians, or cause terror and chaos in society. Their crime is a crime against humanity.

We are filled with sorrow and grief for the victims, and honor the men and women in uniform who risk their lives in combating these heinous acts of terror, and admire the cohesion and spirit of unity in British society who do not give in to terror, and answer the terrorist call for division, chaos and hate, with unity, order and love.

The Muslim community in Britain and across Europe must rise up against the savagery perpetuated by those who proclaim to be Muslim but their actions reveal their evil nature. First, Peace loving Muslim communities must vocally condemn these acts, and vocally and in action oppose those who support the cancer of terror that has spread across the globe by Wahabbism. Second, Muslim communities must take back the mosques in their local area from the preachers of hate who poison the mind of our youth and are financed by the Wahabi movement originating in Saudi Arabia.

Third, as a community we must use social media to combat the campaign of hate and terror of Daesh (ISIS) and like minded groups. Our social media campaign must work on two general fronts, first to promote the true Islam, which is the Islam of peace and dialogue, the Islam of stability and respect for differences of opinion, and teach our youth that the savage ideology of Daesh and all those who support it or hold the same world view is opposed to Islam and condemned by Islamic law and the majority of Muslims. To do this the works of Muslim thinkers in the West such as Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr is of great use and benefit. Second, Daesh and its followers aim to divide our communities across Britain, they aim to cause an atmosphere of Islamophobia, an atmosphere of hate, we must confront this in our social media campaign and inform our fellow citizens in Europe that we stand side by side in opposing these barbaric terrorist movements.

We will stand united in the face of terror, we will say no to hate, and we will defeat the ideology of hate which has taken the lives of thousands of individuals from all walks of life and all faiths across the globe.”

Freedom of Religion in America

The freedom to believe, practice and preach any religion is an unalienable fundamental right, imperative to the maintenance of social cohesion. In the USA this principle has been protected by both the secular and the religious through legal guarantees and religious edicts; but periods in which humanity has enjoyed this ostensible luxury are rare. And the revival of modern Islamic Jihadism, which arguably began during the US backed liberation of Afghanistan by the Mujahedeen, has allowed an unscrupulous American press to constantly frame the topic of religious tolerance (or lack thereof) solely in terms of Muslim influence. This press bias means that it is more necessary than ever that proponents of freedom of religious practice take a stand against counterproductive prejudice.

FREEDOM-OF-RELIGION-ACT.png

Religious liberty has been a central tenet of modern western civilisation since the ratification of the first amendment of the United States Constitution, which states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

However, these legal provisions did not prevent religious intolerance from pervading American society in the past. One prominent example of injustice is the persecution of the members of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) which began in the nineteenth century and which has continued to this very day, albeit in subtler form. Mormons of the past have been subjected to abhorrent acts of violence including the Haun’s Mill massacre, which saw the death of 20 civilian men and children. The fact that this bloody event was sanctioned by the Governor of Missouri in the infamous Missouri Executive Order 44 is particularly sinister, and provides damning evidence of the poor history of civil liberties in America.

Furthermore institutionalized discrimination is also deeply-rooted  in the USA, with long-lasting ramifications for the religious rights of minorities. One example of egregious institutional intolerance is the ‘Americanization’ of Native Americans  which took place in the 1920s, the effects of which are felt to this present day. The effort included the forcible transfer of over 100,000 Native American children to Indian boarding schools.  Students at these schools were prohibited from speaking the native Indian language and had Christianity imposed upon them. Indeed, they were forced to renounce all aspects of their tribal culture and religion. These schools were integral to the government’s “civilizing” process, such that once a student left, the only characteristic that separated him and the white man was skin color.

Another aspect to the Americanization effort was the vilification and in certain cases outright ban on traditional religious practices, most notably the Sun Dance. Before repealing the law in the 1980s, this ceremony had to undergo various changes to appease Christians and to ultimately survive, becoming a hollow shell of its former sacrosanct self. A more recent example of the government infringing on Native American religious rights is the Dakota Access Pipeline Project.  The pipeline threatens to desecrate sacred sites as well as pollute the Missouri river which most tribes are dependent upon.  Dogs, mace and inhumane incarceration conditions are all used to crackdown severely on peaceful protesters, of which most are Native American. The project, in its entirety, is a perfect microcosm of the gross disregard of Native American concerns throughout history.

Since 9/11, however, Islamophobic hate speech constitutes the single greatest threat to freedom of religious practice. Individuals such as Pastor Terry Jones espouse false anti-Islamic rhetoric, and utilize national media platforms to spread their hateful ideology with little resistance from the US government. Events organized by Terry Jones such as the annual Qu’ran Burning congregation, have resulted in an increase in the harassment of Muslims in the US. These provocations also inadvertently strengthen Jihadi recruitment programs, deepening the schism between Islam and the West.

America, a country self-described as the leader of the democratic free world, is steeped in unappreciation for the pluralistic nature of religion in society. Its continued apathy when addressing the grievances of religious minorities is worrying and the recent election of Donald Trump would seem to indicate that this unfortunate state of affairs may endure.