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Middle Eastern Christians: Going, Going…Gone

Two high-profile incidents last week, at opposite ends of the Arab world. In northern Iraq, recently conquered by the zealots of the newly proclaimed “Islamic State”, the Christians in Mosul were given three choices: convert to Islam, pay a special tax (about $750, on this occasion), or be killed. They all fled, and now Mosul is Christian-free for the first time in almost two millennia.

Meanwhile, in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim finally got permission to leave her homeland after spending months chained up in a jail cell. The young woman had been condemned to hang by a Sudanese court for the crime of having “converted” to Christianity, but the government couldn’t legally kill her until after her baby was born.

Now, neither of these incidents gives an accurate picture of government policy in Arab countries that have traditionally had Christian minorities (which is to say, most of them). Indeed, big Arab countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt have all had Christian ministers in their governments, and their laws guaranteed  religious freedom.

Sudan, whose legal system has been based on Islamic shariah law since a military coup thirty years ago, does not treat its citizens equally regardless of their religion. At first glance, however, the restrictions apply mostly to the Muslim majority, who, for example, are forbidden to leave their faith on pain of death. That was the law that almost killed Meriam Ibrahim.

Her father had been Muslim, but he had abandoned the family when she was very young and her Christian mother had brought her up in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, according to Sudanese law you are a Muslim if your father was, and professing any other faith makes you an apostate. She refused to abandon her Christian faith, and so she was sentenced to hang.

But they do understand the concept of bad publicity even in Khartoum. The suspicion hangs heavy that the prosecution grew out of a blackmail attempt gone wrong, for Meriam Ibrahim is a doctor and her husband, also a Christian, holds dual Sudanese and American citizenship. To your average impoverished Sudanese – like, perhaps, her absent father’s family – that would have spelled “money”.

So the accusation was made that she was really a Muslim who had abandoned her faith and married a Christian (both hanging offences), but it may have been made privately at first. Then, however, the professional zealots who make a living out of “defending Islam” got in on the act, demanding the apostate be killed, and the Sudanese government had to enforce its own laws.
The only saving grace was that Meriam Ibrahim was pregnant, and could not legally be killed until her child was born and had lived about two years. This gave time for the saner elements in the Sudanese government to work with her lawyers, and ultimately with US and Italian government representatives, to find a way to let her go. (Meanwhile, for all but the last month of her six-month ordeal, she was chained to the floor in a jail cell.)

It all finally came right, and last Thursday Meriam Ibrahim, her 20-month-old son and her newborn daughter flew out of Khartoum, landed in Rome, and was whisked off to a meeting with the Pope.

“She is unhappy to leave Sudan. She loves Sudan very much. It’s the country she was born and grew up in,” her lawyer told the BBC.  “Her life is in danger so she feels she has to leave. Just two days ago a group called Hamza made a statement that they would kill her and everyone who helps her.”

So a happy(ish) ending to the story – but there were probably several other Sudanese Christians on the same flight who were leaving their country forever with less fanfare. It’s no longer wise for Christians to live there if they have any other options. And that is rapidly becoming the case for Iraq, too.

There were still about 60,000 Christians in Mosul when the United States and its sidekicks invaded Iraq eleven years ago. By last year, it was down to 30,000. Only two months after the arrival of the ISIS extremists, there are none. Most have fled to Kurdistan with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are not going back, and if they can they will leave the Middle East entirely.

What has changed? For many centuries, the Christian minority of Arabs lived in relative peace and prosperity under Muslim rule. In the early 20th century, they were in the forefront of the nationalist and literary renaissance in the Arab world. But in the past decade, about a quarter of the Arab world’s 12 million Christians have emigrated, and the flow is increasing every year.

Most of them are not facing execution, like Meriam Ibrahim or the former residents of Mosul. They just feel excluded from an Arab discourse that is increasingly radicalised and obsessed with religious differences – both Muslim-Christian ones and Sunni-Shia ones – and they have lost hope. They are Arabs who have lost their place in the Arab world, and they have to find one elsewhere.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 10. (“Now…Ibrahim”; and “She…her”)

American Spies in Germany: The End of Trust

The question to bear in mind, when reading this whole sorry tale, is this. If Americans are, on average, no stupider than Germans, then why are their intelligence services so stupid?

After the most recent revelations about American spying in Germany, there was considerable speculation among members of the Bundestag (parliament) that Germany might “get even” by inviting US whistleblower Edward Snowden to leave his Moscow exile and come to Berlin instead. But last weekend Chancellor Angela Merkel, at her traditional pre-summer vacation press conference, rained all over that idea.

“We learned things (from Snowden) that we didn’t know before, and that’s always interesting,” she said – but “granting asylum isn’t an act of gratitude.” Given that one of the things she learned from Snowden was that the US National Security Agency was bugging her mobile phone, this showed admirable restraint on her part, but even Merkel’s restraint only goes so far.

Only a week before, her patience with persistent American spying even after Snowden’s revelations snapped quite dramatically, when she ordered the US Central Intelligence Agency’s “chief of station” at the American embassy in Berlin to leave the country. German media reports stressed that such drastic action had only been taken previously when dealing with “pariah states like North Korea or Iran.”

Clemens Binninger, the chair of the parliamentary committee that oversees the German intelligence service, explained that the action came in response to the US “failure to cooperate on resolving various allegations, starting with the NSA and up to the latest incidents.” The “latest incidents” were the arrest of two German citizens, accused of spying for the US – whose key contact was the CIA station chief in Berlin.

The United States has never formally apologised for tapping Merkel’s phone. It refused to give her access to the NSA file on her before she visited Washington in April. And it went on paying a spy who worked for the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND – Federal Intelligence Service) right down to this month.

“One can only cry at the sight of so much stupidity,” said Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, insisting that the information given to the US by the spies was of no real value. That’s probably true – yet the American controllers paid their spy in the BND almost $40,000 in cash for 218 secret German documents downloaded to computer memory sticks and handed over at secret locations in Austria.

Some of those secret documents were even about the discussions of the German parliamentary committee that was investigating the earlier American spying efforts, including the bugging of Chancellor Merkel’s phone. The American spy agencies simply don’t know how to stop spying, even when they have been caught red-handed.

They only got away with such brazen behaviour for so long because the Germans naively trusted them. The spy from the BND, for example, simply sent the US embassy an email asking is they were interested in “cooperation”. The German authorities didn’t pick up on it because they didn’t monitor even the uncoded communications of a “friendly” embassy.

The spy was caught only when he got greedy and sent a similar email to the Russian embassy. Russian communications are monitored as a matter of course in all Western countries, so the German authorities put the spy under surveillance, and almost immediately they discovered that he was already selling his information to the Americans.

“We must focus more strongly on our so-called allies,” said Stephan Mayer, a security spokesman of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, and one of the first consequences will be the cancellation of Germany’s “no-spy” agreement with the United States. In future, US activities in Germany will be closely monitored by the German intelligence services.

What is clear from all this is that the American intelligence agencies are completely out of control. They are so powerful that even after the revelations of massive abuse in the past year very few politicians in Washington dare to support radical cuts in their budgets or the scope of their operations. They collect preposterous amounts of irrelevant information, alienating friends and allies and abusing the civil rights of their own citizens in the process.

The German intelligence agency (there’s only one) doesn’t behave like that. It chooses its targets carefully, it operates within the law, and it doesn’t spy on allies. Why the big difference?

It’s because the annual budget of the Bundesnachrichtendienst is just under $1 billion, and it employs only 6,000 people. The United States has only five times as many people as Germany, but its “intelligence community” includes seventeen agencies with a total budget of $80 billion dollars. There are 854,000 Americans with top-secret security clearances.

The American intelligence community grew fat and prospered through four decades of Cold War and two more decades of the “War on Terror”. It is now so big, so rich, so powerful that it can do practically anything it wants. And often it does stuff just because it can, even if it’s totally counter-productive.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Clemens…Berlin”; and “We…services”)  Please note that this is the second and last article for this week. The first was sent early, on Friday, in response to the MH17 incident.

MH17 – Who Did It? What Next?

“…and once the TAR (Target Acquisition Radar) has lock-on, this light will go green. Then just push this button here, and the rest’s automatic. Good luck!  Oh, and make sure nobody’s standing behind the missile when you launch.”

Maybe the crew who launched the missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon were trained professionals, but it seems unlikely. That crew (or somebody else) was good enough to down three Ukrainian Air Force planes over the rebel-held zone in the past week, but they weren’t good enough to tell the difference between a military aircraft and a civilian airliner.

The Ukrainian planes were smallish aircraft flying low in a combat zone; the huge Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was flying straight and steady at 10,000 metres (33,000 feet). A fully trained operator would know the difference in an instant. Somebody who had just had a crash course in firing Buk missiles (two tracked vehicles and a lot of electronics) might not. So 298 people died.

There are two questions to answer here. One is: who did it? The Ukrainian government, the pro-Russian rebels and the Russian Federation have all denied responsibility. The other is: what happens if, despite their denials, the rebels and/or the Russians themselves are to blame? Is this horrible event a “game-changer”?

Who did it is actually pretty obvious. At least one Buk launch team was spotted by an Associated Press reporter in the rebel-held zone on Wednesday, and there may have been more. The Russians have been trying to deny the air-space over the combat zone to the Ukrainians so that their army has to do all its fighting without air support and suffers increased casualties. Six Ukrainian planes have been shot down in the past six weeks.

The Ukrainian government says it has no surface-to-air missiles in the area, and it is probably telling the truth. With one possible exception, there have been no reports of Russian planes overflying the region, so anti-air defences were not needed.

The really damning evidence, however, is on the social media sites. First there is a post on a top rebel commander’s site, just at the time MH17 went down, claiming to have downed a Ukrainian transport plane. Within hours that post was deleted. Then the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) posted intercepted telephone conversations between rebel commanders on YouTube.

“Demon”, commanding the rebel troops who are the first to the crash site, reports: “Cossacks from the Chernunkhino checkpoint shot down the plane….They found the first body. It’s a civilian.” “Were there many people?” asks his superior, nicknamed “Greek”. “A fuckload,” replies Demon. “The debris rained right into the yards.”

“Any weapons there?” asks Greek. “None at all. Civilian things. Medical stuff, towels, toilet paper,” says Demon. “Any documents?” asks Greek. And Demon, finally realising what must have happened, replies: “Yes. From an Indonesian student. From Thompson University.” And he curses again.

It’s pronbably not Thompson University, which is an entirely online institution in the United States. It’s almost certainly Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, which has a student exchange agreement with the International Islamic Education Council (IIEC) in Indonesia.

And there’s no way, without access to the crash site and with only a few hours to do the job, that the Ukrainian intelligence service could have come up with that kind of detail to put into a fake recording. It’s genuine. The rebels did it.

Russia didn’t want the Cossacks at Chernunkhino to shoot down a civilian airliner, but it has been giving the rebels heavy weapons while strenuously denying it. It has been caught red-handed, and hundreds have died. This is indeed a game-changer – but in which direction?

One option would be for Moscow to admit it, apologise whole-heartedly, and abandon its clients in eastern Ukraine. That is unlikely to happen. As President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, “This tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine. And certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”

In other words, yeah, we gave the rebels the weapons, and they used them to shoot down the airliner, but the whole thing wouldn’t have happened if the Ukrainian government had just given in to the rebels. So it’s really Kiev’s fault, not ours.

The signs are clear: Russia is going to brazen it out, and go on supplying the separatist rebels with weapons. The Western Europeans have been trying to look the other way (although the United States did impose some extra sanctions this week), but they can’t look away after this. Western sanctions against Russia are going to go up quickly and steeply now. It’s already ugly, and it’s going to get even uglier.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“There are…game-changer”; and “The Ukrainian…needed”)

The Origins of War

The 59 skeletons were found in 1964, lying together in a gravesite beside the Nile near what is now the Egyptian-Sudanese border. They died between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago, and some of them seemed to have died in battle. That was big news half a century ago, when most people still believed that organised killing was an invention of civilisation. Now they are back in the news, billed as evidence of the world’s oldest known battle.

The skeletons were first dug up in haste, as part of a “salvage dig” to rescue archaeological artefacts that would soon be covered by the 500-km lake rising upstream from the new Aswan High Dam. They got little further attention until two years ago.

Scientists at Bordeaux University recently re-examined them, and discovered dozens of previously undetected arrow impact marks on the bones. MOST of the victims had died in a hail of arrows, killed by an organised force of enemy archers, and the deaths had occurred over a period of months or even years. So there had been a prolonged low-level war long before the rise of civilisation or even of agriculture.

The people in the graves were ethnically Africans, probably driven down into the Nile valley by the drying out of what is now the Sahara Desert. We can surmise that their enemies were probably whites of the Levantine/European/North African stock that lived around the Mediterranean and had already spread up the Nile.

The war was almost certainly about resources, for it was a time of rapid climate change and food resources were under great pressure. The two groups were hunters who had efficient weapons, so technically they could fight a war. But the weapons were not new, and neither were resource crises. So why didn’t this happen far earlier?

The skeletons of Jebel Sahaba are not just telling us that we are capable of killing our own kind. Everybody knows that, and it’s a skill that we share with our near relatives, the chimpanzees, and a number of other species. Nor do we need them to tell us that we are capable of highly organised mass killing. All of our recorded history is filled with war.

What the graves of Jebel Sahaba are really telling us is that civilisation was not the problem – and perhaps also that we are not doomed to perpetual war.

Raymond Kelly is an anthropologist who studies warfare among pre-civilised groups, and in his book “Peaceful Societies and the Origins of War” he offers us three eras.

In the first period, our hominid ancestors behaved  like chimpanzees still do. If a foraging party came across a member of a neighbouring group near the borders of their territory, they would kill him IF it was safe to do so – in practice, if they outnumbered him by at least three-to-one.

This behaviour had a cost, however, because it made the borders dangerous: chimpanzees typically spend three-quarters of their time in the central third of their territory, and all the rest is under-exploited. So human behaviour changed when the development of weapons that can kill at a distance (spear-throwers, slings, bows and arrows) made the outcome of any attack more uncertain.

In this second period, starting around 400,000 years ago, Kelly argues that intergroup violence fell sharply. Neighbouring human groups, made up mainly of nuclear families, worked hard at being neighbourly. At times of seasonal abundance they would even come together to socialise, trade, court spouses and perform shared rituals. This fostered trust and peace – and they got to exploit all of their territory.

The last transformation was driven not by technological change but by the rise of what Kelly calls “segmental societies” – ones where nuclear families became associated in larger clans that extended down the generations. This allowed them to mobilise large numbers of warriors for purposeful raiding.

Now killing could happen not at the border but in dawn attacks on the places where the neighbouring group sleeps. Massacre can be the result – and so can a permanent expansion of the territory controlled by your own group. Jebel Sahaba, says Kelly, is the first archeological evidence we have of when this last transformation occurred. War becomes institutionalised in human societies, and grows as they do.

Welcome to the present, you might say. We all still keep armies, and they are constantly preparing for wars that may no longer even involve land. But have you noticed that no great power has fought any other for the past 69 years? That is quite new in our history.

The second transformation, the one that led to about 400,000 years of relative peace, occurred because attacking your neighbours had become too dangerous: the weapons had got too lethal. It is possible that we are in the midst of a comparable transformation now, although it must be admitted that there is still rather a lot of the old behaviour around.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 4. (“The skeletons…ago” and “The people…Nile”)