Monday, 31 October 2016

Former General's homecoming: the band plays on

As Michel Aoun becomes President of Lebanon, my Eyewitness sketch of his homecoming to Beirut in 2005, after 15 years of exile in France - first published in The Daily Star on May 9 2005.

By Michael Glackin
Beirut -- Eyewitness
The assembled members of the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan brass band stood resplendent beside the podium in their uniforms. Their ages looked to range from 17 to 70, and they were occasionally guilty of the odd bum note. But what they lacked in finesse they made up for in sheer volume, particularly if, as I was, you were standing right in front of them beside the stage.
Like the thousands of others gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band had come to welcome home Aoun, Lebanon's prince-across-the-water, and to his followers as near a messiah as you can get in politics.
Most of the overwhelmingly young and largely Christian crowd gathered in the square would barely have been school age when the man his opponents dub "Napol-Aoun" was airlifted to safety out of Beirut by the French government, to a long exile in Paris.
The Martyrs' Square statue, which by now must be the most-climbed structure outside the Himalayas, had a huge photograph of the former general in his military uniform hoisted to the top of it and, as always happens on these occasions, was bedecked in Lebanese flags.
The Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band, which in addition to its trumpets and drums is also the proud owner of the largest Lebanese flag I have ever seen, tried hard to compete with the appearance of a loud thudding beat booming from giant speakers on the stage. But at the first sighting of Aoun's motorcade approaching the square, the crowd went wild, which also unleashed a fresh enthusiasm in the band that heartily banged and blew new life into their instruments.
Suddenly the music stopped. The crowd chanted Aoun's name and Martyrs' Square caught sight of the general for the first time in 15 years as he appeared from backstage. My new-found friends in the band struck up another loud tune before finally giving in to the power of the speakers, which were by now playing the national anthem at a level that could probably be heard in Damascus.
Wearing a suit and tie and standing behind a bullet-proof screen the former general, who cut such a dashing figure as a uniformed commander during the 1980s, looked more like a chubby middle-class businessman. Luckily none of his allies on stage tried to hoist him on their shoulders as his army colleagues used to do in the old days.
Oddly enough, when Aoun finished his speech it was met with polite applause rather than the rapturous cheering that preceded it. The gathered masses got more enthusiastic after their hero left the stage, dancing to more loud music blasting out from the stage. At that point my friends in the band gave up the ghost and downed their instruments to have a cigarette. "We go home for a drink now," they told me. "He's back and we were here to greet him. That is all that matters." It was indeed.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

A U.K. malodorous wind of change

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Wednesday, October 12 2016

If you thought barrel-scraping pandering to populism was limited to political discourse in America think again.
While the sickening spectacle of Donald Trump securing the Republican Party nomination for U.S. President has dominated the world's headlines, the type of xenophobia represented and fueled by the mega mouth businessman is on the increase everywhere. Even in the home of the so called "mother of parliaments".
Last summer's vote for the UK to leave the European Union - so called Brexit - appears to have fired the starting gun on a frantic political race to the bottom, with the government increasingly trying to appeal to voters basest instincts in much the same way as the Hair Fuhrer has done in the U.S.
Last week Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the minister responsible for law and order in the UK, gleefully announced that companies would in future have to publish lists of all their foreign workers. Her department later threatened to "name and shame" British companies that employed too many non UK nationals.
Thankfully, the backlash was ferocious. Steve Hilton, a one time adviser to former Prime Minister David Cameron and oddly enough a vocal supporter of Brexit, called Rudd's plan "divisive, repugnant, and insanely bureaucratic", adding: "Hey Amber, for your next brain­wave, why not announce that foreign workers will be tattooed with numbers on their forearms?"
Tamara Rojo, the Spanish-born director of that most English of institutions, the English National Ballet, made a similar point: She said: “After 20 years contributing to this great country and having been recognized with a CBE [Commander of the British Empire award], how long before I am made to sew a star on my clothes?”
To be perfectly fair, comparisons with Nazi Germany are somewhat wide of the mark - even allowing for the fact that 13th century England was the first European nation to require Jews to wear a visible cloth badge (prompted by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 which demanded Jews and Muslims wear special dress since you ask).
At any rate, within days of Rudd's crass announcement government ministers hit the airwaves to announce they had abandoned the policy. Well sort of.
Cabinet minister Michael Fallon insisted businesses would not have to publish the number of foreign workers they employ. However, he added they could still be made to "report their numbers" to government in order to help establish areas where there are shortages of British workers.
The problem here is that any sort of "foreigners list" has more than a faint whiff of the goosestep about it, particularly when set against the backdrop of other recent government announcements.
Just before Rudd revealed her plans, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted the National Health Service would slash large numbers of foreign doctors working in the UK and hire British ones in their place. Hopefully the Lebanese orthodontist treating my teenage daughter will be allowed to remain in his job long enough to fit her train tracks before he's placed on the next plane out of here.
Just to ensure no foreign worker was left untouched by this malodorous wind of change, it also emerged last week that UK based foreign academics can no longer serve as advisers to the government on EU affairs. The move is understood to be due to concerns that sensitive information could be leaked to the governments of EU member states during Brexit negotiations.
Considering Prime Minister Theresa May has already shown most of her Brexit cards to the EU the ban looks pretty daft. She has already pledged to invoke article 50, the mechanism which will trigger the formal two-year process for Brexit, within the next six months. She has also made clear her willingness to sacrifice the UK's access to the EU free trade market in order to avoid having to accept the free movement of EU labour - the so called "hard Brexit".
There's not much left to leak after that, something the currency markets have already figured out - sterling has fallen to a 31 year low since the prime minister made those announcements.
On one level you can see where the government is coming from. The message from last summer's Brexit vote was clear. Those who voted to leave the EU want tighter curbs on immigration. It is right that the government should take note of this.
However, confronted with disaffected voters the government appears willing to say and do anything, regardless of the cost to the economy, and regardless of the fact that its policies are legitimizing a growing intolerance towards foreign workers.
Make no mistake, the EU referendum campaign unleashed a wave of bigotry in the UK, evidenced by the assassination of Jo Cox, a vocal pro EU member of parliament (and a champion of Syrian refugees). Her assassin shouted "Britain First" at her as he shot and stabbed her in broad daylight on the street outside her local library a week before the Brexit vote.
Official government figures reveal that in the three months since the UK voted to leave the EU there has been a sharp increase in reported hate crimes against ethnic minorities and foreign nationals, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to detect the government's sudden ill-conceived plans to crack down and "get tough" on foreign workers, whether they are waiters, carpenters, doctors, or academics, is pandering to people with extreme tendencies. Indeed there is a strong danger that it is feeding and even tacitly vindicating those who are carrying out attacks in increasing numbers on foreigners in the UK.
Worryingly, a day after Rudd announced her plan, an opinion poll revealed 60 percent of the public supported her. Only 25 percent opposed the plan. That support comes despite the fact that the number of UK nationals in work is at its highest level in almost 20 years.
The politics of snarling and sneering is no substitute for substance and leadership. A hate filled lunatic fringe may have captured the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, but that's no reason for the government of the UK to embrace it. The barrel-scraping has to stop. In an increasingly unstable world the UK requires leadership, not mob rule dressed up as government.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 12 2016.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Chilcot’s 8,000-page report exposes Iraq invasion hidden deals

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Saturday, July 9, 2015.

The 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, author “Gulliver’s Travels,” famously said: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.” I was reminded of Swift’s words as I watched Tony Blair’s emotionally charged response to the publication of the long awaited Chilcot Report into the U.K.’s role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq Wednesday.
Sir John Chilcot delivered a damning verdict on Blair’s leadership, the most damning criticism of a prime minister in living memory. It took Chilcot seven years, and 2.6 million words, but his report makes plain that Blair took the decision to go to war at a time when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat and “before peaceful options for disarmament were exhausted.”
Chilcot found that Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction after accepting flawed intelligence, which he resolutely failed to question or properly scrutinize.
Chilcot also revealed evidence that Blair pledged to support U.S. President George W. Bush’s ambition to topple Saddam within weeks of the 9/11 attacks on America, culminating eight months before the 2003 invasion in an unqualified commitment to support the U.S. invasion – “I will be with you, whatever.” Yet at the same time Blair was still pretending to Parliament, and the U.K. public, that he was desperately seeking a peaceful solution.
Chilcot also found Blair sent British troops into combat ill-equipped, and that he had failed to plan for the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of the country.
And yet, when confronted with this woeful litany of deceit and failure this Wednesday, Blair, visibly shaken and looking like a broken man, was stridently unrepentant about what is widely seen as the worst foreign policy decision by a U.K. government since the disastrously botched attempt to gain control of the Suez canal in 1956.
“I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer,” he declared.
Blair confessed “more sorrow and regret than you can ever believe” but insisted he had acted in good faith, based on intelligence at the time which said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. He conceded that this “turned out to be wrong,” but failed to refer specifically to Chilcot’s charge that he deliberately exaggerated the threat to gain support for the invasion.
In short, Blair said he would “do it all again.” The former prime minister, who at times looked close to tears, insisted he could “look the nation in the eye” because he did not mislead it into war. He insisted Iraqis today, dying in their thousands, are better off since the invasion, particularly the Kurds.
For all the drama of the last week, much of what Chilcot concluded in his 8,000 page report is already widely known, including Blair’s infamous note to Bush in July 2002, in which he said: “I will be with you, whatever.” This was quoted in journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s 2010 book “The End of the Party,” based on his interviews with David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser, and Sir Christopher Meyer, then Britain’s ambassador to the U.S.
It’s also worth pointing out that we are unable to see the other side of the correspondence – what Bush said to Blair – which Washington has refused to declassify. That means the notes are onesided, and arguably lack context for a proper judgment.
One could also argue that some of Chilcot’s criticism of Blair is a little unjust. Chilcot’s accusation that Blair sidelined his Cabinet in the run-up to war, preferring instead to discuss key details with selected trusted aides is more than a little laughable.
At the time, Blair had overwhelming support for the invasion both in Cabinet and in Parliament – though not among the general public. Those politicians who supported him may now argue that they did so under a false prospectus, but all were happy to do so at the time without seeking to scrutinize the evidence themselves. Surely they should have spoken up if they felt they were being left out of key discussions?
Meanwhile, the U.K.’s top spy chief, Sir John Scarlett happily allowed Blair’s government to exaggerate the value of information the intelligence agencies believed to be flawed to make his case for war. The report also asks why the U.K. generals failed to protest that they were ill-prepared and inadequately supplied troops into battle. Chiclot specifically points out that U.K. military commanders made “over-optimistic assessments” of their capabilities, which had led to a number of “bad decisions.”
Blair does appear to have been able to cajole or bully the government’s legal adviser, Lord Goldsmith, into changing his initial legal advice over the legality of the invasion without United Nations support. Chilcot did not make a judgment on whether Blair or his ministers were in breach of international law, but added: “The circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for U.K. military action were far from satisfactory.”
Fair enough. But it is worth pointing out that for all the legal arguments surrounding the invasion, the West had created a humanitarian disaster in Iraq in the decade preceding the war courtesy of the U.N. sanctions program. By 2003, there was no electricity in many parts of the country, barely any running water, and few medicines. UNICEF estimated that more than half a million Iraqi children died as a consequence of sanctions between 1990 and 2003. Yet as Chilcot makes clear, there was no coherent plan by the invaders to rebuild the destroyed country once they occupied it.
Chilcot makes clear that Blair, and as such the U.K., had virtually no role in either planning the invasion or the aftermath which was left entirely to the Americans. Indeed Chiclot criticized the U.S. for ignoring U.K. pleas to avoid implementing a wide-ranging de-Baathification of the army and government offices. Blair’s comment Wednesday that the U.K. was a junior partner of the U.S., was an understatement. Looking at parts of Chilcot’s report it’s clear the U.K.’s role was sadly more akin to the wider world view of Blair being Bush’s poodle.
Finally, Blair insisted that those military men and women who have died in the conflict did so in the “defining global security struggle of the 21st century against the terrorism and violence which the world over destroys lives, divides communities.” Perhaps. But many more would argue the conflict they gave their lives for has instead had a significant role in if not creating, then shaping and fueling that terrorism.
Moreover, as Chilcot’s report shows beyond doubt, the decision to invade Iraq destroyed the U.K.’s international reputation, and single-handedly killed the notion of liberal intervention to protect human lives and human rights in future. In one of Blair’s most telling comments Wednesday, he appeared to express bemusement at that fact. “It [Iraq] also overshadows everything people think about me” he said, seeming to put his bruised ego and tarnished political legacy on a par with the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the bloody quagmire of Iraq since 2003 and their grieving families.
Blair it seems, is pretty unbroken.
The same cannot be said for the dead, the wounded and those left behind to grieve them. To borrow another phrase from Swift, Blair seems to have discovered that “Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived.”
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 7, 2015.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit: A nation turns on itself

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Monday, June 27 2016

Beirut -- To say the political establishment in the U.K. has been rocked to its foundations by last week’s historic vote to leave the European Union is, for once, an understatement. The shocked reactions of leaders around the world reveal that most have not yet fully absorbed what has happened. They are not alone. Neither have the U.K.’s political leaders.

The U.K. voted to withdraw from the EU by a narrow margin. Leave won the referendum with 51.9 percent of the vote, while Remain finished on 48.1 percent. The turnout was 72 percent. It’s interesting to note that roughly 75 percent of the U.K.’s over-65s voted Leave, while a similar number of under-25s voted Remain. A clear case of the old deciding the future of the young. Whether older heads are wiser remains to be seen, but I have my doubts.

As a long-standing Euroskeptic I have many misgivings about the EU: There is its lack of political accountability, its wasteful bureaucracy and idiotic regulations, its diktats and increasing centralizing tendencies. The EU is an open goal when it comes to its shortcomings. But the EU debate, while masquerading as an argument about economics and sovereignty, was really about immigration. There was a pikestaff link between hostility to immigration and support for the Leave campaign, the so-called Brexit vote.

Over the last 20 years, the foreign-born population of the U.K. has increased from around 3.8 million to 8.3 million. Brexit campaigners were quick to blame immigrants for increased pressure on schools, hospitals and housing and promised tighter immigration controls and that money the U.K. currently sends to Brussels would instead be used to relieve this pressure.

But since winning the vote Leave campaigners have spent the weekend insisting they never promised there would be a decline in immigration, and have now said it was a mistake to tell voters there would be more money for the U.K.’s state-run health system.

Meanwhile the mayor of Calais demanded France scrap the 2003 Touquet agreement, which keeps thousands of asylum-seekers on the French side of the Channel Tunnel, living in the notorious “Jungle,” the name given to the makeshift camps that have developed around the tunnel.

Calais is just part of a far wider refugee crisis across Europe, which has been grappling with its biggest influx of asylum-seekers since World War II, as people flee conflict-ridden zones in the Middle East, and Africa. It is this crisis, even more than the 2008 financial crisis, which has done the most to destabilize the European project, and secured the Leave vote.

The dodgy deal the EU brokered with Turkey to lock Middle East refugees outside Europe’s borders, a bribe predicated on allowing Turks visa-free travel across the EU, was used as a stick to beat the Remain camp as Leave campaigners noisily shouted about millions of Turks flooding into the U.K.

The European issue has now accounted for the scalps of three British prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and now David Cameron, who announced his resignation Friday. All three were leaders of the right-wing Conservative Party, which in the last 30 years has been bitterly divided over Britain’s role in Europe.

However, in the aftershocks of last week’s historic vote, the ghosts of the left-wing Labour party’s own Euroskepticism, which had been dormant for almost four decades, have come back to haunt them.

Yesterday Hilary Benn, a leading pro-EU Labour politician and the party’s foreign policy spokesperson, was unceremoniously sacked by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for criticizing the leader’s lackluster support for the Remain campaign. Ironically, Corbyn’s political hero was Benn’s father, the left-wing and anti-EU politician Tony Benn. Following Benn’s sacking, half of Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet quit and demanded he stand down as Labour leader.

In the vacuum of leadership since the vote, the unity of the entire U.K. looks under threat. Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the ruling party in Scotland, where people voted to remain in the EU by a wide margin, has called for a second referendum on Scottish independence, enabling Scots to break away from the U.K. and remain in the EU. The Brexit vote has even led to calls for a referendum that would effectively unite Ireland and Northern Ireland to enable the latter to remain in the EU.

Modern British politics hasn’t been enveloped by such chaos since the Suez crisis.

More importantly for the Middle East is the impact the U.K.’s withdrawal could have on the EU’s role in the Middle East.

The domino effect of Brexit could see other Euroskeptic member states, most notably Denmark, but also more recent complainers, such as the Netherlands, forced into calling their own referendums on EU membership. Geert Wilders, head of the Netherlands’ anti-immigrant Party for Freedom gleefully said: “The Europhile elite has been defeated.” French far-right leader Marine Le Pen called the vote a “victory for freedom.”

A weaker EU means its long-aspired role as a counterpoise to U.S. power in the Middle East will be firmly placed on the back burner. The EU played a leading role in brokering the deal that saw Iran curb its nuclear program. Within the so-called Union for the Mediterranean it has also created myriad trade deals with Middle East states, and funds projects linked to the beleaguered Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A disunited EU, distracted by both negotiating the U.K.’s withdrawal and holding the ring with other potentially recalcitrant members, will clearly lack the clout and inclination to carry out its admittedly second tier role in the region.

Considering the U.K.’s role as bridgehead into Europe for America, it appears likely that Russia, and indeed Iran, could also increase their influence in the region, particularly in the current situation in Syria.

In terms of the U.K.’s own role in the region, U.K. Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood bullishly insisted it would be business as usual. He said the U.K.’s role in the fight against Daesh (ISIS) and wider Islamic extremism would continue. But in reality, the U.K.’s punching power in global politics has been diminished by last week’s vote.

As for Cameron, by calling for this referendum he blithely sailed his country into choppy waters, crashed it on the rocks and then promptly jumped ship. The referendum, which voters here never demanded, on the U.K.’s membership of the EU, was designed as a tool for Cameron to lever his Euroskeptic party into obedience. The tool broke in his hand when the referendum became a vote about immigration and disenchantment with the nation’s body politic. Somehow, the U.K. feels like a smaller nation this morning.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of THE DAILY STAR on page 7 on Monday June 27 2016.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Why Chilcot’s report awaits the ‘Brexit’ vote

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Tuesday, May 17 2016

George Bernard Shaw wittily remarked that “the English are not very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity.” If he were alive today, Shaw might have used the U.K. government’s long-running inquiry into why the United Kingdom went to war in Iraq in 2003 to make the same point.

Almost seven years after the start of the inquiry, led by career civil servant Sir John Chilcot, and more than five years after it finished taking evidence, it was revealed last week that its findings will finally be published on July 6.
The date is significant, but we will come to that in a moment.

Chilcot has said the principal reason for the delay was the U.K. government’s refusal to declassify secret documents which included the all-important 25 letters the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair sent to U.S. President George W. Bush, along with the transcripts of 130 telephone calls between the two men, in the run-up to the invasion.

Further delays were caused by allowing those criticized in the report the right to respond before publication. This has led to claims that some, including Blair, former U.K. foreign secretary, Jack Straw, the former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove, and senior defense chiefs were able to dilute criticism of their roles by challenging details and demanding changes.

But at long last Chilcot’s report, which cost $16 million and runs to more than 2.5 million words – or if you prefer four times the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – is now complete and was handed to ministers earlier this month. Many had expected it to be published immediately. Indeed Cameron had previously insisted he wanted to publish the report within two weeks of receiving it.
The reason it won’t see the light of day until July is because the government doesn’t want it published until after the U.K. has voted in the upcoming referendum on whether it should remain in the European Union, which takes place on June 23.

Cameron has been accused of delaying the report’s publication to avoid embarrassing key “In” campaigners in the European Union debate – not least of whom is Blair. Just as the political establishment supported the Iraq War in 2003, it is also supporting the U.K. to remain in the EU. One politician told me Chilcot’s inevitable criticism of senior political figures has the potential to “significantly undermine” public trust of the political establishment and therefore “it’s unsafe to publish Chilcot until after the vote.”

The stakes are high for Cameron. With just five weeks to go before voting opinion polls show the public is evenly split between those who wish to leave the EU and those who wish to remain in the world’s biggest trade bloc.
Defending the U.K.’s membership of the EU Cameron has gone as far to suggest that “Brexit” – the term coined to describe a U.K. exit from the EU – could result in Europe descending into World War III.

In response, the leader of the Brexit campaign, former Mayor of London Boris Johnson – who many believe will succeed Cameron as Prime Minister – compared the EU to Hitler, insisting both sought to unify Europe under a single “authority.”

Suddenly Lebanese politics looks quite sane.

While opponents of the EU argue about its impact on national sovereignty and the unaccountability of its powerful unelected officials, immigration is the issue that will decide the outcome of next month’s vote.

Brexit campaigners consistently cite the U.K.’s inability to “control its own borders” as the primary reason for leaving the EU. The EU principle of free movement across its borders has seen a sharp increase in people from the bloc’s poorer member states coming to the U.K. to find jobs – often accepting lower wages than U.K. nationals – and in the view of many voters has put pressure on public services and the U.K.’s welfare state.

For this reason, the potential for a flare up of the Middle East refugee crisis as the referendum approaches threatens to deliver the result Cameron fears most.

It is bizarre that the issue of refugees, largely from Syria and fleeing a conflagration caused in no small part by decisions taken in the West, should be the dominant issue. For a start, few of those escaping the violence have got as far as the U.K. Indeed the government has steadfastly refused to accept even a token number for settlement in stark contrast to Germany and Sweden.

But Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the end of World War II, which saw an influx of more than 1 million refugees from the Middle East last year, has led to a sharp increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in the EU and the rise of far right populist parties. This has also happened in the U.K. despite the fact that few of the refugees that crossed the Aegean have reached its shores.

The EU’s hapless response to the issue has also increased fears among Britons that thousands of well-trained Daesh (ISIS) terrorists have used the refugee crisis as cover to slip undetected into Europe and then across its open borders, complete with freshly issued European passports.

Regardless of the reality, perception is paramount and this narrative fits into a growing fear that Islamist terrorists will eventually be able to enter the U.K. (joining incidentally a number of existing home-grown wanna-be extremists) and carry out similar atrocities to those that have taken place in Brussels and Paris.

Brexit campaigners are capitalizing on these fears and hoping to turn them into votes. This explains why Cameron is one of the loudest cheerleaders for the distinctly dodgy deal the EU brokered with Turkey – effectively a bribe to Ankara to lock Middle East refugees outside Europe’s borders.

Since the deal was agreed the number of refugees crossing the Aegean to Greece has fallen sharply despite the fact that few have so far been returned to Turkey.

However, the deal has been on borrowed time since the recent sacking of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, its principal architect, by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man who does not appear overly concerned about stemming the flow of refugees from a conflict he has played no small part in escalating.

The deal’s unravelling looks set to lead to a fresh surge of asylum-seekers arriving on Europe’s shores in the final weeks before the U.K. referendum takes place.

There is perhaps some poetic justice in this. Erdogan increasingly resembles the kind of autocrat the West was not so long ago keen to remove in the Arab world.

Turkish prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdogan since he became president two years ago. These include journalists, cartoonists, playwrights, actors and teenagers. Earlier this year his government seized control of the popular daily newspaper Zaman and removed its editor-in-chief.

Germany’s desperation to appease Turkey has even resulted in a largely unfunny German comedian facing prosecution in his own country after mocking Erdogan on television.

If getting into bed with this kind of regime is the future of the EU maybe we are better off out of it.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR. This article first appeared in the print edition of The DAILY STAR on Tuesday, May 17 2016, on page 7.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

U.K. and Islam's paranoia in dealing with extremists

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Thursday, April 7 2016.

More than a decade ago, just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, novelist Salman Rushdie warned that Islam was being hijacked by political fanatics.

The religion whose scholars had preserved and built on the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece while Europe slept through the dark ages, was in danger from what Rushdie called: “This paranoid Islam, which blames outsider, ‘infidels,’ for all the ills of Muslim societies, and whose proposed remedy is the closing of those societies to the rival project of modernity, is presently the fastest growing version of Islam in the world.”

Derided as alarmist by many of the liberal intelligentsia at the time, Rushdie’s warning has been vindicated, not just by the rise of Daesh (ISIS) and other extremists in the Middle East, but by a succession of terror attacks in the years since he made his comments, from Bali to London, and more recently in Garissa, Ankara, Beirut, Paris and Brussels.

The alarming frequency of the attacks reveals that the growth of “this paranoid Islam” shows no signs of abating and is garnering an increasing number of recruits across the globe.

Having written a great deal about the U.K. government's paranoia in dealing with the threat posed by Islamic extremists, from the use of secret trials to increasing inroads to civil liberties, it is perhaps time to confront the paranoid Islam that Rushdie identified 15 years ago.

Last week, in the United Kingdom, Junead Khan, a Daesh sympathizer from Luton who planned to attack U.S. military personnel stationed in England, was convicted of terrorism offenses. His uncle, Shazib Khan, also from Luton, was convicted of the lesser offense of planning to travel to Syria to join Daesh.

Khan’s trial was held under certain security and reporting restrictions and some information was withheld from the jury. Some of the evidence used to convict the pair still cannot be revealed for legal reasons.

However, it can now be disclosed that the case provided ample evidence on how Daesh is orchestrating attacks in Europe and just how rapidly Rushdie’s “fastest growing version of Islam in the world” is growing in the U.K.

It emerged during the trial that Junaid Hussain, Daesh's Syria-based Birmingham-born hacking expert, who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Hussain al-Britani, was in contact with a number of U.K.-based extremists, including Khan. Hussain had promised to give Khan the U.K. addresses of British soldiers that he had obtained through hacking and encouraged Khan to attack them.

Hussain’s activities placed him high on a list of British targets for assassination and he was duly killed in a U.S. drone strike last August, just weeks after security services had arrested Khan.

Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament at the time that Hussain was involved in “actively recruiting IS [Daesh] sympathizers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West.”

However, the details of such plots could not be reported until Khan’s conviction last week. Hussain was one of a number of key Daesh members whose personal details were listed in documents released in the media last month after apparently being stolen by a disillusioned Daesh fighter. The jury was not told this, nor of his senior role in the group, only that he was in Syria and had been killed in a drone strike.

The reporting restrictions surrounding the six-and-a-half week court case were not as severe as those imposed on the trial of Erol Incedal, a British national of Turkish-Alawite descent, who was cleared in two trials in 2014 and 2015 of planning a terrorist attack in London, but convicted of being in possession of a bomb-making manual. In a first for the British judicial system, the trials were largely held in secret for reasons of “national security.” Despite several High Court challenges by media groups, citing the principle of open justice, the reasons for the secrecy have still not been publicly revealed.

By the look of things, we will have to get used to this sort of trial, because the number of young Muslims willing to embrace “paranoid Islam” is still growing. It is worth pointing out that at least 1,000 U.K. nationals have been attracted enough by it to travel to Syria and Iraq and join Daesh – though paradoxically, in between making plans to join the group, Shazib Khan also scoured the Internet for prostitutes and adult movies.

Khan’s desire to procure prostitutes is illustrative of the contradiction at the heart of the question of what makes young, often educated, westernized men, and women, accept a violent narrowly defined interpretation of Islam, one that is incapable of accepting the liberal ideal of free speech. Worryingly, a report from MI5 in 2011 revealed that two-thirds of British Islamist terror suspects were from affluent middle-class backgrounds.

The answer must surely lie within. It emerged this week that the Sunni sect Deobandi, which controls almost half of the U.K.’s mosques, allowed the Al-Qaeda-linked extremist Sheikh Masood Azhar to speak at a number of its mosques in what amounted to a jihadist recruitment drive in the mid 1990s.

A report in The Times (of London) said among those radicalized and recruited during his visit were Rashid Rauf, one of the coordinators of the July 2005 London suicide bombings and Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was later convicted of beheading the American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

Azhar, a former associate of Osama bin Laden, was the nominal head of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Pakistani terror group prohibited in India and the West, which has been linked to attacks in Kashmir, Afghanistan and India.

Last month, Scotland’s largest mosque was rocked by allegations that its head of religious events, Sabir Ali, had held senior positions in Sipah-e-Sahaba, a terrorist group banned in the U.K. and Pakistan. The mosque has condemned Sipah-e-Sahaba as “sectarian killers” but Ali has not been suspended from his post.

The mosque allegations came hard on the heels of the killing of Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah, who was allegedly murdered by a fellow Muslim after he posted a message wishing a happy Easter to his “beloved Christian nation.” Police have confirmed the attack was “religiously prejudiced.”

Yet, a number of Muslim groups condemned recent U.K. government proposals to combat extremism as “McCarthyist.” Under the wide-ranging proposals, groups deemed extremist by promoting hatred will be banned and places where known extremists meet, including mosques, could be closed. Parents worried that their 16- and 17-year-old children might travel to join Daesh could apply to have their passports removed, while anyone with a conviction for terrorist offenses or extremist activity would be banned from working with children.

Civil liberties underpin the freedoms that make the U.K. an agreeable place to live. There is an argument that the government’s proposals risk undermining the very values it seeks to protect. It is an argument I have often made. In that case, the remedy to Islamic extremism can only come from within Islam. Hamza Yusuf, the charismatic American Islamic scholar, has consistently attacked Daesh’s claim to be the “authentic representative” of the Sunni Islam. More, particularly in the U.K., need to follow his lead.
Michael Glackin. a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom. A version of this article appeared on page 7 of The Daily Star on April 7 2016.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The West’s tango with Putin is misguided

The Daily Star
Friday, January 29 يناير 2016
By Michael Glackin

Fact really is stranger than fiction. What novelist could have penned the tale of the 10-year-old Muslim boy in the north of England who was quizzed by police after mistakenly writing in a school essay that he lived in a “terrorist house” rather than a “terraced house”? Following a tipoff from teachers, police were dispatched to the boy’s home to interview him and his family the following day. Not even the Jesuits were that strict about spelling. Police even took away the family laptop computer for examination.

Following criticism of heavy-handedness, the police insisted other “worrying issues,” beyond the boy’s inability to spell “terraced,” had been raised by teachers. Apparently he had also written that his uncle beat him – which the boy’s parents insisted was untrue.

Following their investigation police admitted “no concerns were identified, and no further action was required by any agency.” As Mark Twain remarked: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

There was even less sense on display during Prime Minister David Cameron’s laughable performance in front of a parliamentary committee earlier this month. Cameron was asked to explain precisely who were the 70,000 moderate Syrian fighters whom he mentioned when seeking Parliament’s approval to launch British air strikes in Syria last year. He refused to answer. The prime minister explained to the committee that if he told them who the moderates were, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Daesh (ISIS) would also “know who they were and could target them.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that Assad and Daesh already had a good idea of who they are fighting, bombing and torturing to death on a daily basis, without relying on Cameron to tell them.

And yet another stranger-than-fiction event occurred last week with the publication of a high-level inquiry into the 2006 killing of KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London with polonium from a Russian state nuclear facility. The inquiry found that Litvinenko was “probably” murdered on the personal order of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The 328-page report is extraordinary. It links Russia’s head of state not only to the Litvinenko murder but to a catalogue of assassinations inside and outside Russia. On the eve of the latest round of the so-called Vienna peace process to end the Syrian war, the inquiry’s damning indictment of Putin – accusing the West’s “partner in peace” of a raft of state-sponsored murders – was the last thing Cameron needed.

In fact, the British government spent years blocking any inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder, until Putin, carried away with his own hubris, annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014. Despite allowing the inquiry to go ahead, Cameron is keen to minimize any damage its findings will cause Moscow at a time when diplomatic efforts to resolve the 5-year-old Syria conflict have reached a pivotal moment. Europe’s governments are under intense pressure from the worst refugee crisis the continent has faced since the end of World War II.

Consequently, while Cameron acknowledged the inquiry’s findings and Putin’s guilt, he added: “Do we, at some level, have to go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis? Yes we do. But we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart.” In fairness, Cameron has little choice.

It is interesting that after the Paris attacks last November world leaders were tripping over themselves to present a united front against terrorism. Yet when an act of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism took place in London, which in addition to killing Litvinenko required 700 people to be tested for radioactive poisoning, there was silence from the United Kingdom’s allies.

Indeed, on the day the inquiry published its findings, French President Francois Hollande called for closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against Daesh. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble said Monday that the European Union must forge closer ties with Russia to resolve the Syrian crisis. The desire to court Russia over Syria is also leading to calls in Washington and Europe to abandon the sanctions imposed on Putin’s regime in the aftermath of his military adventure in Ukraine.

The West’s desperate need for Putin’s cooperation in Syria is misguided. Like Assad, Putin is a thug. In recent months Putin’s military intervention has not only successfully strengthened Assad, it has severely weakened the moderate opposition to the regime by focusing as much, if not more, Russian firepower on them as on Daesh. The West has watched while Russia drops cluster bombs on civilian areas, an act Amnesty International has called a war crime.

Putin may well bring pressure on Assad to compromise, or even leave power, but only if it suits his overall strategy of increasing Russian influence. It’s likely that a large slice of the bill for his cooperation will be paid in Ukraine, which the West is poised to abandon to facilitate a deal, any deal, that ends the Syrian conflict and Europe’s panic caused by the refugee crisis.

One hopes the West does not come to rue the day it allowed Putin and Assad’s brutality to take precedent over the principles of international law and justice. Yet the message that looks most likely to come out of the Vienna process is simply that crime does pay. The facts speak for themselves.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article was published in the newspaper edition on page 7, January 29 2016.