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Two Performances

On Monday we were treated to two pieces of public performance art, one by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the other by Mahmoud Abbas, the closest thing the Palestinians have to an agreed national leader (which is not very close). Both performances were beyond bizarre, and taken together they demonstrate how politicians whose lives are dominated by the Arab-Israeli dispute are ultimately reduced to self-caricature.

Abbas’s contribution was a rambling 90-minute speech to the Palestinian National Council, the (unelected) legislature of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It’s the first full meeting of the Council in 22 years, and an attempt by Abbas to restore some measure of legitimacy to his own position as President of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas has lacked all legitimacy since his last legal term as president expired nine years ago. He survives as the nominal leader because (a) it suits the Israeli government and (b) the Palestinians are so hopelessly divided that nobody bothers to challenge his claim to be the leader.

The ‘peace process’ has been dead for twenty years. President Trump is moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv up to Jerusalem despite anguished Palestinian protests. Hamas, the Islamist rival to Abbas’s Fatah movement, controls the Gaza Strip and almost half the Palestinian population in the occupied territories, and it doesn’t even deign to send delegates to Abbas’s meeting. So what was Abbas’s speech about? History.

Not even real history. Fantasy history, in which the Jews of Europe brought the Holocaust down upon themselves by choosing to fulfill a specific (and lucrative) ‘social function’. “The Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe,” Abbas explained, “was not against their religion but against their social function which relates to usury and banking and such.”

Whatever Abbas may believe privately – and he may not believe much of anything after thirty years in the Hall of Mirrors that is Palestinian politics – he would once have known better than to say such vile nonsense in public. But all hope is gone, and there is nothing useful left to say, so he just dredges up the weary old Holocaust denial stuff he played with as a student and serves it raw to an equally despairing audience.

Binyamin Netanyahu, by contrast, is on the winning side, and his contribution on Monday was an up-market, updated version of his celebrated performance at the United Nations in 2012. That was when he showed the General Assembly a child-like drawing of a bomb (the kind 19th-century terrorists used to throw, with a fizzing fuse at the top) and warned the diplomats that Iran would have a nuclear weapon by 2013.

It didn’t, of course. Iran’s brief period of working on nuclear weapons, triggered by Pakistan’s six nuclear weapons tests of 1998, had already ended in 2003 according to the testimony of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and even Netanyahu’s own intelligence agencies agreed with that assessment.

In 2015 Tehran agreed to allow strict international inspections to guarantee that no work on nuclear weapons, even of the most preliminary sort, would be done for the next ten years. Netanyahu, who is paranoid on the subject, would have greatly preferred a ‘pre-emptive’ attack on Iran – and now he has an ally in Donald Trump, who also wants to kill the 2015 deal.

So Bibi did another show-and-tell performance on prime-time Israeli television, all in English and aimed at the global audience, in which he sorta kinda claimed that Iran was cheating on the agreement and still working on nuclear weapons. One of the visuals even said (in metre-high letters) “Iran lied”.

Netanyahu didn’t lie, of course; politicians seldom do. He just stood in front of aerial photos and images of documents and talked about recently acquired Iranian secret documents that showed the country had an active nuclear weapons programme. And it was all true – except that the Iranian programme in question was mostly closed down in 2003, and completely dead by 2009.

“There was nothing there,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “There was nothing the International Atomic Energy Agency didn’t know, and all the theatrics and circa-2004 PowerPoint were a bit silly.” So why did Netanyahu do it?

Partly it was to provide something resembling a justification for his friend Trump’s forthcoming abandonment of the 2015 Iran deal. People who were not paying close attention might walk away from Netanyahu’s dog-and-pony show thinking he had proved that Iran was cheating on its commitments.

But mainly he did it because he lives in a political environment so polarised, so toxic, that people who are immersed in it gradually lose touch with reality. Even as Netanyahu carefully manipulated the facts in order to create a false impression, at another level he probably believed that he was expressing a deeper truth. He’s a winner, not a loser, but he is just as much trapped on the wheel as Abbas.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Abbas…leader”; and “It didn’t…assessment”)

South Sudan is not Africa

This is not an article on South Sudan, which is just as well because the conflicts there are almost fractal in their complexity. The mini-war last weekend between the forces of President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, which killed more than 270 people and saw tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships used in the capital, Juba, is part of a pattern that embraces the whole country.

The four days of heavy fighting began on Friday, 8 July, with a disagreement between the two men’s large forces of bodyguards outside State House where they were meeting, and rapidly escalated to an all-out clash between all of Kiir’s and Machar’s troops in the capital. Nobody was surprised, because the peace deal last August, which ended a two-year civil war that killed tens of thousands across the country, was never very secure.

After a shaky ceasefire was agreed, President Kiir said: “Making South Sudan glorious will only happen if we see ourselves as South Sudanese first rather than tribal or political groupings,” which is the sort of thing that leaders are obliged to say after a pointless clash like this. It’s true, too, but in South Sudan it is very hard to do.

Last weekend was the fifth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, but celebrations had already been cancelled before the shooting started because the government couldn’t afford them. The country has some oil but virtually no other exports, and was hard-hit by last year’s collapse in the oil price.

The real reason for its poverty, however, is war: the country that is now South Sudan has been at war for 42 of the past 60 years. British colonialists included it in what we now call Sudan for administrative convenience, but the dominant population in the much bigger northern part was Muslim and Arabic-speaking, while the south was mostly Christian and culturally, ethnically and linguistically African.

The fighting began a year before Sudan’s independence in 1956, with the southerners resisting the Sudanese government’s attempts to Islamise and Arabise their part of the new country. That civil war lasted until 1971, and the second (1983-2005) was even longer. By the time South Sudan finally won its independence in 2011, it had long been a fully militarised society.

It didn’t take long after independence before the two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka (led by President Salva Kiir) and the Nuer (led by Vice-President Riek Machar) were at each other’s throats. Those are just two of South Sudan’s sixty ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture and territory – and even within the two big ethnic groups, different sub-groups sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of the fighting.

One-fifth of South Sudan’s 12 million people are currently refugees within their country – the lucky ones in United Nations camps, but many hiding in swamps and badlands from local ethnic militias. Kiir and Machar are both brutal, untrustworthy men, and neither is fully in control of his own generals. And the outside organisations that have poured foreign aid and peacekeeping troops into the country are losing patience.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice said: “This senseless and inexcusable violence – undertaken by those who yet again are putting self-interest above the well-being of their country and people – puts at risk everything the South Sudanese people have aspired to over the past five years.”

Two Chinese peace-keeping soldiers were killed in the most recent fighting, causing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to abandon his usual diplomatic caution. “Yet again, the leaders of South Sudan have failed their people,” he said. “Rarely has a country’s conduct squandered so much promise so quickly.”

The current ceasefire may not last: seven others were broken during the course of the recent civil war. South Sudan is unlikely to achieve a lasting peace settlement any time soon. But South Sudan is not representative of sub-Saharan Africa. Out of 48 countries south of the Sahara, only Somalia, Burundi, and South Sudan are currently suffering from large-scale internal violence.

A dozen others have experienced similar upheavals at some point in the past fifteen years: sub-Saharan Africa is unique in the extravagant diversity of its population, with two hundred ethnic groups of more than half a million people and only three with over 15 million people. But mostly they manage to co-exist fairly peacefully, and over time broader national identities are being built over the post-colonial wreckage.

The image of a continent ravaged by war is an optical illusion perpetuated by the international media’s fixation with violence. For example, during most of 2014-15 the headline news coming out of Europe, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, was the war in Ukraine – although all of the continent’s other fifty countries were at peace.

South Sudan is desperately unfortunate in its history and its leaders, but it is no more typical of Africa than Ukraine is of Europe.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“US…years”)

Sex, Arabs and Political Correctness

The French left does political correctness and moral outrage much better than the American left, so the row over what Algerian novelist and journalist Kamal Daoud recently said about sex in the Arab world has been bigger and louder in France than in the United States. But it is equally stupid in both places.

Kamal Daoud’s day job is writing for a French-language daily in Oran, Algeria’s second-biggest city, but he is a big new name in French literature, having won the prestigious Prix Goncourt last year for his first novel. And being a journalist, he wrote a couple of opinion pieces about the mass sexual assaults on German women by Muslim men (some of them recently arrived refugees) in Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart last New Year’s Eve.

One article went to Le Monde in Paris, the other to the New York Times. In both, Daoud deplored the exploitation of the attacks by right-wing parties in Europe, where almost a million Muslim refugees have arrived in the past year and anxieties about a “cultural invasion” are high. But he also wrote about the task facing Europeans who have to integrate these immigrants into their society, and he didn’t pull his punches.

“(The immigrant) comes from a vast, appalling, painful universe – an Arab-Muslim world full of sexual misery, with its sick relationship towards woman, the human body, desire. Merely taking him in is not a cure,” he wrote in Le Monde.

The sexual misery in the Arab world is so great, Daoud continued, “that it has given birth to the porno-Islamism that the Islamist preachers talk about to recruit their true believers: descriptions of a paradise that is close to a whorehouse as a reward for pious men, fantasies of virgins for the suicide-bombers, the sexual harassment of women in public spaces, the puritanism of the veil and the burqa.”

He warned that giving Muslim refugees in Europe “papers and a place in a hostel is not enough. It is not just the physical body that needs asylum. It is also the soul that needs to be persuaded to change.” This task will take a very long time, and Europeans should be aware that.

This is what really enraged the right-thinking opinion leaders of the French left. A “collective” of intellectuals and academics published a counter-article in Le Monde in which they accused Daoud of “feeding the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing part of the European population.”

His call for Muslim immigrants to be taught Western values was “scandalous, and not only because of the same old claptrap about the West’s mission to civilise and its superior values. (Daoud) is effectively saying that the deviant culture of this mass of Muslims is a danger for Europe.”

It was pure character assassination, but Daoud’s response was mild: “I wrote it driven by shame and anger at what my own people had done, and because I live in this country and this world.”

But the worst betrayal was by Daoud’s close American friend Adam Shatz, who wrote a long and favorable profile of him for the New York Times last year. “It is very hard for me to imagine that you truly believe what you have written,” Shatz wrote in the same paper last month. “This is not the Kamal Daoud that I know.”

Presumably drawing on his vast experience in these matters, Shatz explained to his Muslim Arab friend that sexuality in the Arab-Muslim world is not universally a “misery”, and that the Muslim men who attacked German women on New Year’s Eve were probably “not under the influence of Islam, but of alcohol.” (In fact, they were probably under the influence of both.)

Shatz was particularly upset by Daoud’s suggestion that the attitudes of Muslim immigrants to sex and women were a “sickness” to be “cured”. The same language, Shatz said, had once been applied to Jews. As the old adage says: Heaven protect us from our friends.

Daoud is being punished for speaking the truth – that the sexual attitudes of Muslims recently arrived in Europe often differ drastically from those of the Christian and post-Christian majority – but he would have suffered less abuse if he had put this difference in its proper historical context.

The sexual inequalities, dysfunctions, fantasies and hang-ups that he identifies as a specifically Islamic burden were almost all present in Christian societies too just a few centuries ago. Even today radical Christian sects (and ultra-orthodox Jews) struggle under the same burden.

It is the same because Muslims, Christians and Jews actually belong to the same broad civilization and the same religious tradition – Muhammad, Jesus and Abraham were all born within a long day’s drive of one another – so all they inherited the same brand of patriarchy.

The Christian societies (if you can still call them that) are escaping from it now because they got a couple of centuries’ head start on the Muslims in the process we call “modernization”. It’s not really a fundamental cultural difference at all. It’s just a question of dates, but that means that at the moment the differences are very real – which is all Daoud is really saying.*

The Islamic Wars of Religion

On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim rulers beheaded their country’s leading Shia Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on charges of seeking “foreign meddling” in the kingdom.

On Saturday, an angry crowd of Iranians – all Shia Muslims, of course – attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put a cartoon on his website comparing Saudi Arabia’s head-chopping orgy on New Year’s Day (46 other executions on the same day) to the mass executions carried out by the Sunni extremist ‘Islamic State’ group.

So on Sunday, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran – and all the pundits started talking about the Sunni-Shia “war of religion” that is about to engulf the Middle East.

This raises two questions. First, what would a Sunni-Shia war of religion actually look like? And second, has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses?

The first question is best answered by looking at the history of the Christian wars of religion, ca. 1520-1660.

The Muslim world now, like “Christendom” in the 16th century, is made up of many independent countries. And the current phase of the Muslim wars of religion is being fought out between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, just as the first phase of the Christian wars of religion was fought out mainly between Catholics and Protestants in individual countries.

From the start of the conflict in Europe, however, each European state tried to help its co-believers in neighbouring countries as well, and alliances were increasingly shaped by religious considerations. In the second phase, these alliances dragged most of Europe into the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the middle of Europe but involving armies from as far apart as Sweden and Spain.

The main battleground, Germany, lost between one-third and one-half of its population. Nobody won, of course, and in the very long run everybody just lost interest in the question. But it was a very great waste of lives, time and money.

The Muslim world is already caught up in the first phase of a comparable process, but it is not condemned to go the whole distance. One big difference is that the Sunni-Shia split is ancient – more than 1,350 years old – whereas the Catholic-Protestant split was new and still full of passion at the time of the Christian wars.

More than 99 percent of today’s Muslims were simply born Sunni or Shia, whereas many 16th-century Christians had made a conscious choice about their religion. The current killings in the Muslim world are mostly driven by state policy, so maybe Muslims will not throw away a couple of generations following the same foolish, bloody road that the Christians took 500 years ago.

Those who live at the geographical extremes of the Muslim world – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh in the East; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa and even Egypt in the West – will certainly not suffer the same fate, for there are only tiny Shia minorities in these countries. But for those who live in the heart of the Muslim world, from Yemen to Turkey and from Lebanon to Iran, the future may be much darker.

And so to the second question: has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses? Not exactly, but many players have lost sight of the bigger picture.

George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed the sectarian demon in the region. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 frightened the region’s dictatorships and absolute monarchies into increased repression and greater reliance on appeals to sectarian loyalty. Then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died a year ago, and the kingdom spun out completely.

Saudi Arabia under its previous monarchs was very cautious and conservative in its foreign policy. It subsidised various extreme Sunni groups in other countries, but it clung tightly to its American alliance and never engaged directly in adventures abroad

The new Saudi king, Salman, is 80 years old and infirm, so in practice most decisions are made by his nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (aged 56), or his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (aged only 30). There is intense competition between the two men for the succession to the throne, and the decisions coming out of Riyadh have been much bolder than ever before.

The past nine months have seen a major Saudi Arabian military intervention against the Shia side in the Yemeni civil war, the creation of a Saudi-led alliance of almost all the Sunni-majority Arab states, and now the execution of a Shia leader in Saudi Arabia that was clearly calculated to cause a diplomatic breach with Iran.

It’s just dynastic politics, in other words, not some inevitable geopolitical juggernaut. But it was similar dynastic politics half a millennium ago that triggered the worst phase of the Christian wars of religion.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Muslim…ago”)