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Editors' Picks

Birmingham, Land of the Mohammedan?

You sometimes get the feeling you’re reading an old book, not today’s paper. The descriptions are all wonky, the tropes ancient – when, for example, a country or a people is described as having certain traits (the noble, quiet Japanese culture, for example), or when a politician comes out to say that their country will go to war for honour (see: Michael Howard, Brexit, Gibraltar – oh man). But you get the feeling you’re reading some kind of pre-Renaissance text when you come across how people talk about Muslims, these days, particularly when it comes to the city of Birmingham. 

I grew up in Birmingham. I know what it’s like. It’s fun, ugly, boring and beautiful all at once. It’s people are friendly and intolerant, open and welcoming, a little bit mean, a little bit generous. It’s a city like many others across Europe – somehow a bit depressing, but also incredibly fun. Post-industrial, the second city, London’s little brother – people from all over the world, getting on, not getting on, just chilling, working hard. What can I say? It’s a city. You know what cities are like. 

So when I read that the city of Birmingham is a city of Muslims, by which the writer obviously means it’s a city of terrorists or something similar, I feel personally offended – obviously offended by the insinuation that generally Muslims=terrorists, but also, offended by the lack of research, the lack of enquiry. You might as well be reading Marco Polo crossing into a Land of the Mohammedan, an early venture in to the strange tribal rites of the Mussalman. 

Obviously, some of my fellow Brummies feel the same way – check out this article from Al Jazeera. The city’s Muslim population feels castigated – it feels threatened. And it is – after the attack on Westminster last week, several of the city’s residents were arrested – and released – without charge. Never mind, as soon as the arrest is made, it’s once again a case of all Muslims being bad, etc. The thing is, people from Muslim communities are well aware of the tensions and pressures which exist in their community, and in broader society, which may lead to certain people to potentiate beliefs into something more violent. However, this is a fact always overlooked – instead, the media repeats the dumb equation ad infinitum – all Muslims are terrorists. It’s absurd, ridiculous, unsubtle, archaic and belongs to the old world.

Instead, let’s amplify voices from communities which are increasingly marginalised. Voices like Abdullah’s, from Birmingham:

„They [the media] make out that it’s the community here that’s responsible for this whole problem, but we’ve got nothing to do with it.

„It was one person who did it but we all get the blame.

„We live side by side with our neighbours, we have no problem here.“

Defying terror, spreading knowledge

Defying threats of terrorism, the American University of Afghanistan this week re-opened its gates in the war-riddled capital Kabul after months of closure due to a brazen militant attack last year.

This one-of-a-kind university in Afghanistan has made its mark over the years in educating and grooming a new generation of leaders in various fields. Fate of hundreds of students was in limbo as the varsity – one of the leading high-education facility in region, remained close for more than seven months. Students in the land-locked country have long remained away from modern studies, and opportunities for them to seek higher education abroad are still quite slim.

In August last year, four Taliban militants stormed the compound located on a busy street in the western part of the Afghan capital. The deadly 10-hour assault ended early on Thursday August 24, leaving at least 13 people dead, including 7 young students. Despite being purely an academic institution, the AUAF has been on the militants’ hit list merely for its association with the U.S. Two faculty members of this university American Kevin King and Australian Tim Weeks, who were abducted last year, remain in the custody of the Taliban.

The AUAF administration has been forced to acquire the services of a foreign security firm among other measures to evade any potential terrorist attack from barring the Afghans seek knowledge and wisdom.

One of AUAF’s student Rahmatullah Amiri’s return to the campus signified the resilience of the Afghans in the wake of decades’ old unrest in the country. He received three bullets during the deadly assault on the campus last year. “We will never give-up on our quest for knowledge”, he said on the occasion.

All factions involved in the Afghan conflict must realize they have to adhere to the law of the land as well as the human values to be accepted as a legitimate force in any future set-up. Attacks on academic institutions are no less than a war crime, and there should be no impunity for those involved in such blatant acts of terror.

Photo: US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

Tolerance (not racism) fights extremism

Opportunist far right parties hurried, once again, to link the recent terrorist attack on Westminster, which killed four people, with immigration. The message is not new: we heard it after the attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels and Berlin. „We must control our borders,“ said Marine Le Pen, while former UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed that Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim policy was correct.

Manipulation is commonplace amongst populist politicians, who try to capitalise on atrocities and people’s fear in order to gain votes. Mixing immigration and religion with terrorism, the far right, imposing a discourse of „us and them“ has tried to foster a distorted view of immigration and the Muslim community, blindly ignoring that Muslims themselves are the main victims of extremists, in countries such as Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.

Fortunately, the citizen response following the London attack showed that tolerance is overwhelmingly present in the UK. Numerous rallies took place all over Britain condemning the terrorist attack, including one symbolic act featuring Muslim women on Westminster Bridge showing their solidarity. Moreover, London, the most multicultural capital city in Europe, is a great example of progression, integration and diversity. The Muslim mayor of the city, Sadiq Khan said precisely that the terrorists target cities like London because its citizens „respect, embrace and celebrate one another“. This is the only way to tackle extremism: demonstrating tolerance and respect. However, on the other hand, racist and islamophobic right-wing propaganda only contributes to exacerbate it.


African Union’s Agenda 2063 is too important to be left to leaders alone

As the world embraced the global goals for sustainable development in 2015, with a clarion call to communities of the world to actively champion an end to poverty, protect the environment and ensure prosperity for all, Africa was equally charting its own destiny with the declaration of a 50 year development plan dubbed Agenda 2063 and chaperoned by the African Union.

Indeed it is a noble and ambitious plan that if executed to the letter, could transform the continent thanks to the seven distinct pillars that seek to actualize it including one of a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development, a peaceful and secure Africa, An African whose development is people driven among others. It goes on to capture what ails Africa and prescribes the most prolific and life changing solutions. But therein lies the problem. Africa has been here before. Tons of researches, declarations and recommendations following high powered African Union conferences are still gathering dust in shelves unimplemented even after millions of dollars were spent on them.

Majority of Africans still ponder. Why do we need another declaration or plan yet since the existence of the AU predecessor the Organization of African Union it has been the same old tune that doesn’t translate to better lives for Africans.

Policy makers can harp all the praises to the populace but if the benefits of all these declarations and agendas do not trickle down to them, it is all flogging a dead horse.

Every African need to be made an active part of this agenda. National governments should be made to adopt it into their own national plans, schools should embrace it as part of the curriculum, right from primary schools up to institutions of higher learning. There should be clear cut predefined periods and metrics of measuring how the execution of the agenda is progressing. Otherwise before we know it, it will be 2050 and all we will have is the same continent and an agenda that will be relegated to the books of history.

Resisting Nauroz

Arrival of spring marks the beginning of New Year in Western Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Black Sea Basin and the Balkans. The first day of the New Year ‘Nauroz has been celebrated in many traditional ways in this part of the world for centuries. There are, however, resistance to these traditions from more orthodox and extremist forces who see it as a pre-Islamic era practice that needs to be dropped.

This year, the day fell on Tuesday, March 21. On this very day, a group of students associated with the Islamist party- the Jamiat-e-Islami Pakistan, stormed a Nauroz party on the Punjab University campus. The ‘Islami Jamiat Talba’ beat those gathered there to welcome the New Year, and set their belongings on fire. The IJT is a right-wing student body that often operates in university campuses across the country as the de facto moral police. IJT members have in the past objected to Valentine’s Day celebrations and the playing of music at certain cultural events.

The day is meant to embrace each other, celebrate the gifts of nature and promote the culture of coexistence.

In Afghanistan for instance, people prepare ‘Haft Mewa’ (the Seven Fruits) on the New Year’s Day-made from seven different dried fruits served in their own syrup, for the friends, relatives and neighbours who visit each other’s homes on this day. Similar traditions of sharing happiness exist in Iran, the Central Asian states, Turkey, Iraq, Albania, Armenia, China, Georgia and many other countries.

In some countries, the farmer community are commemorated for their services throughout the year.

None of these practices disrespect any religion or community. As part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Nauroz belongs to everyone, and those trying to resist it with force, and impose their agenda violently needs to be stopped.

Possibility of piracy resurgence and why the world should listen more to Somali people

The recent hijacking of a Comoros flagged bunkering tanker with 8 Sri Lankan crew onboard by pirates in Somali’s coast has ignited debate on the possibility of return attacks which nearly crippled the all-important shipping industry five years ago.

There has been a lull in piracy cases in the troubled Somali waters since 2012 thanks to the concerted and coordinated efforts of navies allied to the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations, NATO who have been patrolling the region.

Having managed to keep the waters safe, the navies pulled out of Somalia last December. Three months later, the pirates struck. And while the latest attack is a departure from the previous ones, seeing as no ransom was given and it only lasted a few days, it has however exposed fundamental issues that calls for both local, regional and global intervention.

For starters Somalia coastline stretches over 3,300 kilometers, making it the longest in Africa which explains why it is strategic for majority of companies across the globe. Somali also sits in the Horn of Africa which is a prime zone for global trading partners. For example most of the trade between the European Union and its key trading partners like Japan, Asia, India and China takes pass through this route on a daily basis. In fact data shows that approximately 30 per cent of the world’s oil, which includes natural gas from the Persian Gulf destined for Western countries, pass through the Horn of Africa on a daily basis.

But the coastline also offers some of the best fish. For a country however recovering from decades of war, the locals have found a lifeline in fishing. Now they accuse the government of the semi-autonomous Puntland region of allocating fishing licenses to international companies with little regard to the locals. In fact one fisherman described the scene at night as “looking like Los Angeles at night due to so many lights from ships and boats.” Another fisherman was quoted by the media as saying that the world should be prepared for more piracy attacks since there has been a surge of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing activities in their waters.  Indeed a UN report approximates that over $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somalia’s coastline every year.

In the period between 2007  and 2012, when piracy reached unprecedented highs in East Africa especially in Somalia, it was reported that pirates cost the world $7 billion in ransom with an approximated 1,000 people taken hostage.

To forestall such a repeat calls for a wholesome strategy that goes beyond security deployment. Most of those seeking livelihood in Somalia waters are locals, some even reformed pirates whose only source of income lies in the waters. The newly installed government of Somalia, while licensing international fishing companies should also ensure locals benefit from a resource that is in their own land. Regional bodies like Intergovernmental Authority on Development. IGAD, must also step up their resolve in helping Somalia find homegrown solutions to local problems like piracy while the international community must coalesce around the new Somali regime and offer practical solutions that seems to reward locals. Only then will locals join in fighting piracy and stemming its mutation.

No end in sight for populism despite Wilders disappointment

Europeans who advocate integration and multiculturalism breathed a sigh of relief at the outcome of last week’s Dutch elections. The xenophobic, far-right Freedom Party received a lower-than-expected vote, which left many analysts rejoicing over a “defeat of populism”.

However, the failure of Geert Wilders’ party is not so obvious: it increased its vote to 13% and consolidated itself as the second largest party in the Netherlands.

In addition, one reason for Wilder’s disappointing results was that other parties have taken over his agenda, notably on issues such as immigration and border control. Thus, Wilders may not have enjoyed the expected vote, but worryingly many of his ideas have already stretched into the moderate right and to the centre.

In the final weeks of the election campaign, the xenophobic rhetoric even reached the winner of the elections, incumbent liberal prime minister Mark Rutte, who days before the election banned rallies supporting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and ordered the expulsion of the Turkish Family Minister. Controversially, Turkish politicians were in Europe campaigning to win votes from the diaspora in a referendum that would drastically enhance Erdogan’s powers. For many analysts, the diplomatic fall-out with Ankara and the exchange of accusations between the Dutch and Turkish presidents in fact benefited the leader of the liberal party.

Nonetheless, dangers remain on the doorstep of Europe. A significant part of the European population are less than keen on receiving immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Moreover, many are fearful over security, connecting migrants with terrorism; a train of thought stirred up and driven by rising extreme-right politics. As high-risk elections in France and Germany draw closer, politicians across the continent must up their game in the intense battle against populist nationalism.

Dutch courage needed for European fight

So the Dutch prove that while they are not exceptionally right-wing, they are still pretty right-wing. Mark Rutte will be able to continue his premiership by forming a new coalition government, with Geert Wilders somewhat out of the picture. While this is a blow to populist rightwingers the world over, it’s barely a scratch on hardline conservative governments, which in both tone and policy actually reproduce the same ideals that the Wilders’ party propounds. There will be curbs on migration, cuts in tax and a more bullish tone towards foreigners, but you know, Rutte will be a lot nicer to the EU.

Is this a good thing? Yeah. Kinda. Obviously it’s better than having an exceptionally rightwing zombie in charge of a leading European country – but it’s not that much better. It’s a bit like having an exceptionally zombified rightwinger – someone who maybe, kinda, sorta, also, somewhat – probably – believes the same things, but is a little less charismatic, and somewhat more amenable to public tastes.

However, with French elections looming, I believe the contrary to a Rutte is needed. Not in terms of policy – obviously I would love it if an angel of a socialist won, or a much maligned SWJ, or a beautiful, saintly leftwinger who fights poverty by day and structural inequality by night, takes every holiday to remember the colonial oppression and oppression of women on which present day prosperity is built – but this is unlikely. Instead, according to many forecasters (which we have all learnt to distrust) project a narrow victory for a Centre-Right or Centre-Left candidate, with Le Pen taking it all the way to the second vote.

No, what I believe is needed is a kind of equal to Le Pen in populist appeal – just someone who believes and fights for justice for all, and someone who doesn’t waste time arguing about ethnicity and religion and cultural history and political correctness and Jews and Europe and all that other boring conspiracy stuff. No, I would love it if we were able to strategically position ourselves as people who fight for people – which is what many and most of the people on the left do – yet the message does not get through. Instead, we are marked as people who fight for rich people and university-educated people and institutions which oppress poor people. What I want is someone unafraid to connect with people, and someone savvy enough to push through their policies. Take Jeremy Corbyn as a negative example: The guy has all the right policies, but he does not know how to even stand-up straight at the podium, which means, no matter what he thinks or believes, his message does not get through.

This is a key lesson for the left – which I think is super unpopular for many people: Beliefs and policies don’t win elections – popularity and appeal and connection and storytelling do.

Hospitals remain military targets in Afghanistan

Last week’s horrific attack on Afghanistan’s biggest hospital in the capital Kabul used both by the civilians and the security forces has further dismayed the nation that has been copping with violence since decades. The attack, claimed by Daesh has left 49 people dead, most of them civilians, while over 80 got wounded, but many more are left with wounded souls.

The Afghan forces managed to neutralize the four attackers around seven hours after the hospital close to the diplomatic enclave was stormed. The tales of horror emerged much later when the survivors later spoke to the media. Eye witnesses saw the bloodthirsty assassins disguised as the hospital’s medical staff shooting indiscriminately, throwing grenades all over and even stabbing patients lying in beds. Afghanistan lost a number of its bright and emerging doctors on this day, and above all received another blow to the hopes for peace in the country that has been under war-like situation for more than four decades now.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has pronounced this attack as a ‘War Crime’. In a statement issued on Thursday, the HRW said attacks directly targeting health care in Afghanistan have increased sharply since 2014. It has cited a recent report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (IRC) that has noted some 240 attacks in 2015 and 2016 that killed or injured medical personnel and closed, damaged, or destroyed medical facilities, eroding the healthcare system in Afghanistan. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 119 incidents where healthcare facilities were targeted in 2016.

The Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for the vast majority of these incidents, though Afghan security forces have been responsible for raids on clinics, or have used medical facilities for military purposes, it added.

Ironically, the main player in this conflict i.e. the U.S. had also contributed instead of preventing such attacks. On 3 October 2015, a United States Air Force AC-130U gunship attacked the Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders in the northern Kunduz province which killed exactly 42 people; the same death toll for the latest attack claimed by Daesh on the Sardar Dawood Khan Hospital in Kabul.

It makes this quite obvious that such places where humanity prevails over all other identities remain unsafe in Afghanistan from all parties engaged in this ferocious conflict.