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Letter to Obama on support for Middle East democracy

The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy has sponsored a letter to President Obama asking him to support human rights and democracy in the Middle East– even in “friendly” countries– in a way President Bush promised to do, but didn’t.

Improving relations between the United States and Middle Eastern nations is not simply a matter of changing some policies here and there. For too long, U.S. policy toward the Middle East has been fundamentally misguided. The United States, for half a century, has frequently supported repressive regimes that routinely violate human rights, and that torture and imprison those who dare criticize them and prevent their citizens from participation in peaceful civic and political activities. U.S. support for Arab autocrats was supposed to serve U.S. national interests and regional stability. In reality, it produced a region increasingly tormented by rampant corruption, extremism, and instability.

In his second inaugural address, President Bush pledged that the United States would no longer support tyrants and would stand with those activists and reformers fighting for democratic change. The Bush administration, however, quickly turned its back on Middle East democracy after Islamist parties performed well in elections throughout the region. This not only hurt the credibility of the United States, dismayed democrats and emboldened extremists in the region, but also sent a powerful message to autocrats that they could reassert their power and crush the opposition with impunity.

This part may be hard for some to swallow, but I think it’s mostly correct:

For too long, American policy in the Middle East has been paralyzed by fear of Islamist parties coming to power. Some of these fears are both legitimate and understandable; many Islamists advocate illiberal policies. They need to do more to demonstrate their commitment to the rights of women and religious minorities, and their willingness to tolerate dissent. However, most mainstream Islamist groups in the region are nonviolent and respect the democratic process.

In many countries, including Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco, the right to participate in reasonably credible and open elections has moderated Islamist parties and enhanced their commitment to democratic norms. We may not agree with what they have to say, but if we wish to both preach and practice democracy, it is simply impossible to exclude the largest opposition groups in the region from the democratic process. At the same time, to reduce the future of the region to a contest between Islamists and authoritarian regimes would be a mistake. Promoting democratic openings in the region will give liberal and secular parties a chance to establish themselves and communicate their ideas to the populace after decades of repression which left them weak and marginalized. [My emphasis.] More competition between parties of diverse ideological backgrounds would be healthy for political development in the region.

Are most “mainstream” Islamist groups in the region nonviolent and respectful of the democratic process? I don’t know. But trying to exclude them from participating in elections will never work in the long term.

A similar case was made by none other than Senator John McCain a few years ago.

“The security of New York or Madrid or Munich depends in part on the degree of freedom in Riyadh or Baghdad or Cairo,” he declared. And, therefore, we can no longer afford the view that “a despotic ally [is] preferable to an unfriendly democracy,” he said.

You can read the entire letter and see who signed it here.



Labor Solidarity in Venezuela

This may be one of the most significant (if underreported) challenges to the Hugo Chavez regime in Venezuela. At least some leaders of a trade union movement initially formed in support of Chavez have allied with another, anti-Chavez trade union movement.

The Latin American Herald Tribune reports:

It is precisely the sort of thing any elected leader least wants as they head into what could be the worst recession in decades, and almost certainly in the 10 years in which President Hugo Chávez has been in office.

Leaders of the two biggest labor organizations in the country, the Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV) and the National Workers Union (UNT), have lent their weight to Labor Solidarity, a new alliance forged by 14 of the biggest unions in the country.

Once, this would have been unthinkable.

The CTV was openly aligned with the opposition during the early days of the Chávez era, helping to orchestrate an unsuccessful two-month national strike against the government in an alliance with Venezuela’s biggest business organization, the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Fedecámaras), around the turn of 2002-03.

In a classic case of divide and rule, the government at the very least encouraged the creation of the UNT as an openly declared rival to the CTV’s traditional grip on union power.

After the failure of the national strike in early February 2003, the CTV backed out of overt political activity, vowing to focus on representing its’ members interests. At the time, the government aligned UNT was making only slight inroads into the CTV’s long-established turf.

Now, at least some of these erstwhile deadly enemies are on the same side. More to the point, they’ve effectively joined forces in making little secret of where they think the center of the problem lies – the president himself.

Igor Lira, one of the 14 union leaders who ascribed to the accord, called on Chávez to respect the rights and benefits of the workers set out under their collective bargaining agreements with employers.

“We don’t have privileges because what we have got, we’ve won by our own efforts,” Lira declared. “We’re prepared to defend our contractual rights and union freedoms, we’re going to advance in a movement that allows us to defend ourselves against obstacles. There’s already been enough of the president going on with his braggadocio.”

It would never have been a surprise to see the CTV lending itself to this sort of talk. But for anybody at the UNT to have done so was a very different thing, given the UNT’s origins as an organization loyal to the president’s cause.

(Hat tip: Caracas Chronicles)


Sabeel’s impact on Christian charity

This is a guest post by Seismic Shock

Over the last few weeks, it has become readily apparent that charities are increasingly flexing their political muscles when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Oxfam, Christian Aid, War on Want and various other NGOs have issued factually inaccurate statements concerning Operation Cast Lead. Amos Trust, meanwhile, encouraged its supporters to watch the Go To Gaza, Drink The Seaplay. For whatever reason, it appears that radical anti-Zionism is becoming increasingly more popular among NGOs.

Interpal, for example, has worrying links to Hamas, whilst its leader Ibrahim Hewitt is an extremist. Interpal is a member of the Interfaith Group for Morally Responsible Investment (IMRI), a coalition group which puts pressure on the Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group to withdraw its funds from certain companies which work alongside Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The IMRI coalitian also includes Friends of Sabeel UK, whose patrons have variously endorsed the Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah whilst calling for a boycott of Israeli goods. Friends of Sabeel UK finds its origins in the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem run by Naim Ateek, who once claimed:

In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.

Ateek in turn has praised Hamas as a ‘liberation theology movement.’ Given the widespread support for Sabeel by many Christian organisations, it is worth pointing out that anti-Zionism and antisemitism is prevalent within large parts of political Christianity as well as political Islam.

The effects of Sabeel’s actions, rhetoric and theology have been seen in Sweden, and perhaps provide us with a glimpse of the future for the UK should IMRI be successful.

The leading Swedish Christian aid organisation is Diakonia, which was created by and is supported by the Swedish Alliance Mission, the Baptist Union of SwedenInterAct, the Methodist Church of Sweden and the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden.

Yet bizarrely, Diakonia’s Policy Officer Joakim Wohlfeil has openly admitted that Diakionia is is more a lobby group with a clear political agenda for the Middle East than a Christian aid organisation. Wohlfeil also claims:

It is unreasonable to provide information about the Holocaust, in which Hitler murdered six million civilian Jews in a meticulously planned industrialised process, without at the same time providing information about “al Naqba”.

Diakonia’s regional manager in Jerusalem Cristoffer Sjöholm recently addresseda Sabeel conference, boasting of his organisation’s work of convincing a Swedish company to close a factory built in the West Bank.

Diakonia has previously funded a Sabeel survey, met with the Sabeel to discuss‘present and future partnerships’, and openly lists Sabeel as a partner in the Middle East. Naim Ateek himself has praised Diakonia’s work alongside Sabeel.

Diakonia also actively encourages a boycott of the train company Veolia, which has already been successful in Sweden. Now the Interfaith Group for Morally Responsible Investment in the UK is planning a similar move to boycott Veolia.

What is striking and disconcerting about the case of Diakonia in Sweden is that mainstream Christian institutions and the leading Swedish Christian charity have essentially allowed politically-driven anti-Zionist liberation theology to trump both Christianity’s call to ‘love thy neighbour’ and the core values of the Diakonia charity itself.

Yet at the same time, the status of Diakonia and of these church organisations in Sweden allows them to have a ‘halo effect’, as many will instinctively trust Diakonia due to its status and reputation.

Christian charity and reconciliation for both Palestinians and Israelis is clearly possible, as Andrew White’s Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East has shown. Yet if the Church of England and other UK-based Christian denominations allow themselves to be bullied in the coming months by what appears to be a pro-Hamas liberation theology agenda, they will be helping neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians.


The men who sold (out) the (women of the) world

Last week, to mark International Women’s Day, Sara Azmeh Rasmussen, a Norwegian of Syrian origin burned her hijab in protest of the oppression of women in Islam.

This is a small but significant gesture by a small group of women. But as this short film reminds us, 30 years ago, many thousands of women were mobilised in revolt. But someone sold them out. Their revolution failed and millions of their sisters found themselves much worse off than before. Who was it? Who betrayed these women and delivered them into the cruel hands of  the reactionary theocrats?


Where Has Preventing Violent Extremism Cash Gone?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. We actually don’t know. And Shadow Communities Minister Paul Goodman wants to find out. 

The details of how the £70m was being spent was published last year, after some prompting. However, the details of this year’s expenditure have not been forthcoming. 

The Leader of the House of Commons assured the House that there is  ”no intention to withhold any information about public money being spent”, and I’m sure that is the case. Certainly, some of the PVE money will have been spent on initiatives that some of us might disagree with: but policy in this area benefits from scrutiny and discussion. 

Let us hope that the data has been retained and collated, and that we will shortly be able to examine it.


Nasser tribute at Socialist Unity

At the pro-Respect blog Socialist Unity, everyone is outraged about film director Ken Loach’s appalling remark that antisemitism is “understandable.”

Ha ha. No, of course not. Instead Andy Newman has a post up celebrating “The Greatest Arab”– the late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser. There’s a stirring video tribute to Nasser which I suspect will leave you as dry-eyed as it did me.

There are many things that could be said about Nasser and his “leftwing” admirers– and some of us said a few of them in the comments to Andy’s post.

But I’ll simply add that under Nasser, Egypt was a haven for fugitive Nazi criminals– and for the Nazi collaborator, Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini.

One of those Nazis, Goebbels’s protege Johann von Leers, was noted for the virulence of his Jew hatred and his antisemitic writings during the Third Reich. He came to Egypt in 1955. With the help of his close friend the Mufti, he got a job in the Information Ministry, where he specialized in anti-Israel propaganda (hardly a stretch– just change a few words here and there). He died in Cairo in 1965.

Louis Heiden, a wartime employee of the German Press Agency, also ended up in Egypt, where he translated Mein Kampf into Arabic. The Egyptian government published an Arabic version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which Nasser recommended to a visiting Indian journalist in 1958.

“It is very important that you read it,” The Greatest Arab explained. “I will give you a copy. It proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that three hundred Zionists, each of whom knows all the others, govern the European continent.”


“Understandable”

You’ve probably read British film director Ken Loach says that a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe since the Gaza crisis is “not surprising and understandable”.

What I would have wanted to say, has been said by Rosie and Ben and Norm.


Mullah Omar talks about Afghan peace

The Sunday Times is reporting today that Taliban leader Mullah Omar has approved talks aimed at ending war in Afghanistan and is participating in Saudi-sponsored peace negotiations.

Omar has apparently allowed his representatives to attend the Saudi-sponsored peace negotiations. The paper quoted one of the mediators, Abdullah Anas, a who is said to be a former friend of Osama Bin Laden and now lives in London (lucky for us), as saying: “Mullah Omar has given the green light to talks.”

The paper also quoted Afghan government sources as confirming it had been in contact with Omar who is believed to be somewhere in Pakistan – but then who isn’t.

News of the talks come after President Obama last week suggested there could be talks with moderate elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of a “process of reconciliation” – as long as that’s not capitualation. Obama told the New York Times that US forces in Iraq had persuaded some Islamic radicals alienated by the tactics of al-Qaeda to co-operate, which sounds similar to the success in Iraq that the US had with disaffected Sunnis.

At the same time AP reports General David Petraeus, speaking before about 800 people at an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council, as saying that an Iraq-style surge cannot be a solution to the problems in Afghanistan. But if you only have a total of 38,000 (including the 17,000 just green lit) US troops in the country compraed to 150,000 in Iraq then your options are more militarily limited. Petraeus, the new US commander in Afghanistan, wants that US number to rise to 60,000, but that is only likely to happen if fairweather Nato members, France and Germany, commit more troops along with Britain.

In his speech Petraeus appeared to reflect the general pessimism about Afghanistan and said that it has been spiraling downward and is likely to get worse before it gets better. Petraeus said more resources are needed in Afghanistan, both military and especially civil to help build a stable government there.

“The secretary of defense and I are among the biggest champions with members of Congress for increasing the resourcing for the State Department and the Agency for International Development,” he said.

All his as four Nato soldiers (no country as yet named) were killed by a roadside bomb today and two on Saturday. Britain also suffered another casualty bring the number killed in Afghanistan to 150.

I posted last year, ‘Why are we in Afghanistan’, about the attacks reaching a new high, and Britain’s secret Taliban talks. Looks like it is really on now.

Let’s hope it all gets better before Pakistan really comes apart. Although Jason Burke in the Observer today says it isn’t quite as bad as all that.


Oh Bungle!

The Mail on Sunday reports:

A Muslim who advised the Government following the July 7 London bombings has been arrested after an alleged stabbing.

Inayat Bunglawala, 39, was held on suspicion of attacking another man at his £300,000 home.

Mr Bunglawala, who also briefed former Security Minister Tony McNulty on the threat posed by Islamic radicals in the UK, was arrested two weeks before Christmas last year.

The identity of the alleged victim is unknown and it is not clear what circumstances led to the alleged attack in the early hours of December 13 last year.

Mr Bunglawala has been released on bail while the Crown Prosecution Service considers bringing charges.

That’s all there is on this alleged stabbing – and be aware that this is all that can be said about this.

But they also report something else that had passed me by:

Many in the Islamic community have been concerned at his behaviour. Mr Bunglawala – the MCB assistant general secretary and Press spokesman – lodged a complaint with the BBC after its website described firebrand cleric Abu Qatada as an ‘extremist’.

Dubbed Al Qaeda’s ‘Ambassador in Europe’, Abu Qatada gave religious authority to extremist groups in the UK and abroad, including the men behind the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.

Last night, a BBC News source said: ‘We were right to call Abu Qatada an extremist and we would be happy to do so again.’

I’m not at all surprised by that.

There’s also this:

In his final years as Prime Minister, Tony Blair came to distrust the organisation amid claims it was linked to Islamic extremism. But the MCB has enjoyed a renaissance under Gordon Brown and briefed Counter-Terrorism Minister Bill Rammell on community tensions last week. MCB representatives also advised Foreign Secretary David Miliband during last year’s Israel-Gaza War.

Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, who worked as a security adviser to Mr Brown, said of the alleged incident: ‘This calls into question the Government’s vetting of its Islamic advisers.’

I feared as much.

The Mail also reports this:

His wife, Tahmina Saleem, works for Redbridge Council in East London.

When I google her, I discover that she used to work for the Muslim Council of Britain. Well, given that Bungle employed his own sister, Shehnaz Bunglawala, to work at his new iEngage advocacy organisation, I’m not surprised by that.

She now works at Redbridge Council. Here is a document that states that she works or worked for the “Safer Communities Team” and was involved in the administration of the Redbridge Tackling Extremism Together Fund.

You might also remember that key Bungle ally, Abdurahman Jafar was involved in something described as a “Redbridge Countering Extremism and Islamophobia group”. Until he resigned:

Respect party’s Abdurahman Jafar stepped down after advertising an Iraq war debate between Respect MP George Galloway and Mr Gapes for the government-funded Redbridge Countering Extremism and Islamophobia group – despite neither agreeing to take part.

Gapes complained in the House of Commons of flyers advertising the event as “a devious stunt” to promote the Respect party, and believed he would have been “denounced” for not attending.

But Mr Jafar said: “It was a mistake, an oversight. I was trying to save time and money by promoting a prospective event in advance.

“It is absurd to suggest I was using money and the group to promote party politics. I am not a professional organiser and I accept the criticism.

“It would have been better to get a definite answer but I did contact his office.

“I decided to step down in the interests of the organisation.”

What exactly is going on?

UPDATE

Gregg in the comments below notes:

Delicious dissonance impending for the Mail if it turns out he stabbed an illegal intruder.


Will Andy Go Down For This?

The Sunday Times reports:

AN Islamic cleric, whose supporters led a hate-filled protest against British troops returning from Iraq, has urged his followers to give cash to front-line mujaheddin fighters.

A recording has emerged of Anjem Choudary, a self-styled sharia judge and former leader of the banned group Al-Muhajiroun, telling his followers to stop spending their money on their families and divert it to Muslim soldiers waging jihad, or holy war.

There were demands for Choudary to be investigated by police. He has previously called for British women to be forced to wear burqas and for adulterers to be killed. Several radical preachers have previously been jailed for urging British Muslims to give money to Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in Iraq.

Patrick Mercer, chairman of the Commons subcommittee on counterterrorism, said: “It is crucial that Choudary is investigated by the police and if the evidence stacks up he must be charged.” Geoffrey Bindman, a leading lawyer, said: “There’s an element of ambiguity in the term ‘mujaheddin’ but in the context it’s possible he would be held to be seeking to raise money for terrorist purposes.”

Choudary supporters taped a meeting last year at which he was preaching to disciples. A copy of the recording has been passed to The Sunday Times.

At one point on the tape Choudary says: “People [are] looking for a place for their money to go so they can go to the front line and they can’t find it. You should not think to yourself ‘my money, my money’ . . . you have [an] opportunity to carry da’wah [the spread of Islam] to society . . . and you have money that can go towards the da’wah, you have money that can go towards the mujaheddin. One day you will not have that. Then you will regret the time when you said, ‘When I had that time, when I was with people, I did not invest it properly’.”

Choudary added: “When you are working collectively . . . people supporting the mujaheddin, people collecting money for the da’wah or giving money to the mujaheddin, he [the ‘shaytan’, or devil] will come to you then. He will divert you, he will say to you, ‘This money is needed for your family’.”