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The Iconoclast of Timbuktu

Nobody got punished for blowing up the giant Buddhist statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley in 2001. Nobody has been sent to jail for blowing up much of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria after ISIS captured it in May 2015. (It was recaptured last March.) But Ahmed al-Mahdi is going to jail for a long time for destroying the religious monuments of Timbuktu, and he even says he’s sorry.

Appearing befor the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Monday, the former junior civil servant in Mali’s department of education said “All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused.”

He caused a lot of damage. Timbuktu is a remote desert outpost now, with fewer residents than the 25,000 students who thronged its famous Islamic university in its golden age in the 16th century. Its ancient mosques and monuments are of such historical value that they have earned Timbuktu (like Banmiyan and Palmyra) a UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site.

Timbuktu’s greatest treasure was its tens of thousands of manuscripts dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries, which dealt with topics as diverse as literature, women’s rights, music, philosophy, and good business practice

When Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) stormed into Timbuktu in 2012, the heroic librarian Abdel Kader Haidara saved 95 percent of the city’s manuscripts by smuggling them out to Bamako, Mali’s capital, by car and boat. But the mosques and the mausoleums could not be moved, and Ahmed al-Mahdi was recruited to head the “morality police”. One of his jobs was smashing the ones that were “idolatrous”.

Al-Mahdi, born near Timbuktu, was already a follower of Wahhabism, an austere Islamic sect of Saudi Arabian origin that condemns ordinary people’s reverence for ancient mausoleums and religious shrines as idolatry. So to protect people from sin, historic buildings, tombs, etc. must be destroyed. (Back home, the Wahhabis have pretty well finished the job in Mecca by now.)

AQIM, like ISIS and the Taliban, is “Salafi” in its beliefs, but Salafism is essentially an offspring of Wahhabism with added extremism. So Ahmed al-Mahdi was an obvious recruit for AQIM, and he threw himself into his new job with enthusiasm. He is charged with destroying nine mausoleums and part of one mosque, but he almost certainly vandalised many more.

Malian and French troops drove AQIM out of Timbuktu in 2013, and al-Mahdi was captured shortly afterwards. As head of the morality police he supervised the whipping of smokers, drinkers and “impure” women, the stoning of adulterers, and the execution of “apostates” – but the charge that the International Criminal Court chose to bring against him was “destroying cultural heritage.”

This is a first for the ICC, the world’s permanent war crimes court. Its previous cases have all involved illegal violence against people. This case is about violence against things.

Even if they are things sacred to many people, some critics worry that expanding the category of war crimes in this way undermines the unique status of torture, murder and genocide as crimes so terrible that they require international action if local courts cannot deal with them. Mali requested that the case against al-Mahdi be transferred to the ICC, but the question still begs an answer.

You won’t get it from al-Mahdi, who just wants to apologise: “I ask forgiveness (from the people of Timbuktu), and I ask them to look at me as a son who lost his way.” Maybe he means it, and maybe it’s just a plea bargain. (The prosecutor is only asking for a prison sentence of 9-11 years, although the maximum penalty is 30 years.) But whether his contrition is genuine is not really the question.

It’s a very old crime. Gangs of Christian monks (the original iconoclasts) hacked the noses off every “pagan” statue they could find in 4th-century Egypt. Catholic missionaries in 16th century Mexico supervised the burning of thousands of illustrated books containing the history and mythology of the pre-Columbian civilisations: fewer than twenty survive.

The Islamist vandals of today belong to a long tradition, and none of their predecessors was punished. So is the ICC of today just picking on Muslims?

No. Genocide was only defined and made illegal by the Nuremburg trials in 1945-46, although history is full of other genocides. But the world was not picking on Germans. We had just reached a point in our history when we could finally agree that genocide was always and everywhere a crime against humanity.

Making the act of deliberately “destroying cultural heritage” a crime is another, lesser step in the same process of building a body of international human rights law that applies to everybody. Al-Mahdi just happened to come along at what was, for him, the wrong time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“You…question”)

Libya: The Hesitation Two-Step

When “Prime Minister” Fayez al-Sarraj of the “Government of National Accord” GNA) arrived in Libya a month ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that it was “not the time for obstructionists to hold back progress.” A noble sentiment, but it does make you want to ask Kerry: When would be the right time for obstructionists to hold back progress? Next Tuesday?

It was just one more slice of the meaningless waffle that passes for policy statements when Western statesmen discuss what to do about the Libya mess. The country has collapsed into violence and chaos since NATO bombers (with sporadic help from local militias) drove long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011, and Kerry has no good plan for dealing with it.

Sarraj’s GNA merely adds a third contender to the two rival governments that already claim to rule the country, and not one of them actually controls much territory. It is the hundreds of militias that really control Libya’s territory, and the fortunes of the contending governments rise and fall depending on how many militias will agree to back them (in return for various favours and subsidies, of course).

Western governments are finally paying attention to Libya mainly because ISIS (Islamic State) fighters are active there, and because refugees are flowing into Europe from Libya again now that the route through Turkey and Greece has been blocked.

The Italian, British and French governments have been talking about sending 6,000 troops into Libya to train a Libyan army that could take on ISIS and defeat it. There are already American, British, French and Italian special forces teams in the country, and there have been at least four American air strikes against ISIS camps in Libya since December.

It all sounds like a full-scale Western military intervention in Libya is imminent – except that it has been sounding like that for the past six months, and the intervention still hasn’t happened. There is a curious reluctance to take the final step.

The Western interventionists are right to hesitate. The fear that ISIS will take over most of Libya if they don’t put troops in is grossly exaggerated: lately ISIS has been losing ground in Libya, not gaining it. More importantly, ISIS can never be eliminated entirely unless there is a single, legitimate Libyan government backed by a disciplined army.

So the first priority for the Western powers is to create a government that has the legal authority to invite Western troops in to help. “The GNA [Government of National Accord] is the only entity that can unify the country,” Kerry explained. “It is the only way to generate the cohesion necessary to defeat Daesh [IS].”

So the Western great powers have just created such a government, using the United Nations as their vehicle. The GNA is not a Libyan initiative; its members were picked by foreigners, and and that is how Fayez Sarraj found himself the prime minister of the Government of National Accord.

Farraj is a respected non-partisan figure, the kind of person who gets appointed to head up a National Commission for this or that. If either of the existing claimants to be the Libyan government were inclined to hand over power to the GNA, Farraj would be just the sort of reassuring chap to win them over.

But neither contender – the General National Congress in the capital, Tripoli, or the elected House of Representatives in Tobruk, a thousand kilometres to the east – is inclined to do anything of the sort. Indeed, Farraj was unable to fly into Tripoli with his retinue because the General National Congress closed the airport. He only finally arrived by sea, thanks to the US Navy.

Ordinary Libyans might support the GNA, if only out of despair. They are heartily sick of the inter-militia fighting, the financial chaos, and the lack of any government services, and they might well accept a foreign-backed “government” with lots of money and troops at its disposal. But it’s not ordinary Libyans who have to be convinced to hand over power. It’s the local politicians and the militias who control them, and they won’t do it.

Maybe foreign firepower could compel them to accept the GNA’s authority, but the Western powers are not willing to commit their troops to that sort of open-ended military operation. They just want to go after ISIS and the people-smugglers, and if the GNA can give them the legal cover to do that, it will have served its purpose.

And even then they may decide in the end not to commit Western troops on the ground, because ISIS is not really such a big deal in Libya. Amongst the several hundred thousand members of the innumerable Libyan militia groups, ISIS has at most 5,000 fighters.

It does some spectacularly nasty things, like murdering 22 Egyptian Christian foreign workers on a beach last January, but it only controls one smallish city (Sirte) and an adjacent stretch of coastline. The hesitation two-step may continue.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Farraj…Navy”)

Turkey: Next Stop Civil War?

“You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time…”, begins Abraham Lincoln’s famous aphorism about democracy – but in a multi-party democratic system, that is usually enough. In a parliamentary system like Turkey’s, 49 percent of the popular vote gives you a comfortable majority of seats, and so Recep Tayyib Erdogan will rule Turkey for another four years. If it lasts that long.

There will still be a Turkey of some sort in four years’ time, of course, but it may no longer be a democracy, and it may not even have its present borders. In last Sunday’s vote Erdogan won back the majority he lost in the June election, but the tactics he employed have totally alienated an important section of the population.

Kurds make up a fifth of Turkey’s 78 million people. Most Kurds are pious, socially conservative Sunni Muslims, so they usually voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party – which consequently won three successive elections (2003, 2007, 2011) with increasing majorities.

Then the Kurds stopped voting for Erdogan, which is why he lost last June’s election. In this month’s election he managed to replace those lost votes with nationalist voters who are frightened of a Kurdish secession and simple souls who just want stability and peace – but he had to start a war to win them over.

Erdogan threw Turkey’s support firmly behind the rebels when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, mainly because as a devout Sunni Muslim he detested Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime. He kept Turkey’s border with Syria open to facilitate the flow of volunteers, weapons and money to the Islamist groups fighting Assad, including the Nusra Front and ISIS (which eventually became Islamic State).

He even backed Islamic State when it attacked the territory that had been liberated by the Kurds of northern Syria. That territory extends along the whole eastern half of Turkey’s border with Syria, and in the end, despite Erdogan’s best efforts, the Syrian Kurds managed to repel ISIS’s attacks. But this was the issue that cost Erdogan the support of Turkish Kurds.

His solution was to restart the war against the PKK, the armed separatist movement that is based in the Kurdish-speaking northern provinces of Iraq. A ceasefire had stopped the fighting between the Turkish government and the PKK for the past four years, but Erdogan now needed a patriotic war against wicked Kurdish separatists in order to lure the nationalists and the naive into backing his party.

He duped the United States into supporting this war by allowing US bombers to use Turkish airbases and promising that Turkish planes would start bombing Islamic State too.
(In fact, Turkey has dropped only a few token bombs on IS; the vast majority of its bombs are falling on Kurds.)

The pay-off came on Sunday, when the votes of Turks who fear Kurdish separatism replaced the Kurdish votes that the AK Party lost last June. The problem is that the election is now over but the war will continue.

Indeed it will get worse. The Turkish army is already shelling the Syrian Kurds, and warning that it may invade if the Syrian Kurdish proto-state (known as Rojava) tries to push further west and shut down the last border-crossing point that links Turkey to Islamic State.

At home, the independent institutions of a normal democratic state have been subverted one after another: the media, the police, and the judiciary now generally serve Erdogan. State television, for example, gave 59 hours of coverage to Erdogan’s campaign in the past month. All the other parties combined got 6 hours and 28 minutes.

So Erdogan’s AK won the election, but Turkey is no longer a real democracy. And since the half of the population that didn’t vote for Erdogan utterly loathes him, it won’t be a very stable authoritarian state either. In fact, it is probably teetering on the brink of civil war.

The people who loathe Erdogan because he is destroying Turkey’s free media, perverting its criminal justice system and robbing the state blind – he and his AK colleagues have been enthusiastically feathering their nests – will not turn to violence. The poor will not turn to violence either, even though the economic boom is over and jobs are disappearing.

But some of the Turkish Kurds will fight, and they will have the support of the Syrian Kurds just across the border. That will probably draw the Turkish army into invading northern Syria to crush the Kurds there – and once Turkey is fully involved in the Syrian civil war, all of southeastern Turkey (where Kurds are the majority) also becomes part of the combat zone.

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rescued a Turkish republic from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, he was determined to make it a European state. It was a fairly oppressive state at first, but over the decades it gradually turned into a democracy that operated under the rule of law.

That’s over now. It took Erdogan a dozen years in power to demolish that European-style democracy, but the job is done. As one despairing Turk put it recently, Turkey is becoming a Middle Eastern country.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 11 and 12. (“He duped…Kurds”; and “At home…civil war”)

Erdogan’s War

The death toll from the twin suicide bombs at a peace rally in Ankara on Saturday has reached 128. The Turkish police were not present to provide security (they never are at “opposition” events), but they did show up to fire tear gas at the mourners afterwards.

Who did it? Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered three possibilities: the Kurdish separatist organisation PKK; anonymous “extreme leftists”; or Islamic State. Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP party that organised the rally, offered a fourth alternative: people trying to advance the interests of President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) party.

The atrocity certainly served Erdogan’s strategy of creating an atmosphere of fear and impending calamity before the elections on 1 November, in which he hopes to get back the parliamentary majority he lost in the June elections. But it’s hard to believe that the AK Party has suicide-bombers at its disposal: it is an Islamic Party, but nothing like that extreme.

It’s equally unlikely to have been the work of the PKK, because a very large proportion of the people at the rally were Kurds. Moreover, the PKK is a secular organisation, which makes it an improbable source of suicide-bombers. The suggestion that “extreme leftists” were responsible is ridiculous: what would be their motive? Which leaves ISIS, aka Islamic State, as the probable perpetrator.

ISIS uses suicide-bombers as a matter of course, and it is certainly angry at President Erdogan. He treated it quite well in the early years of the Syrian civil war, keeping the Turkish border open for its volunteers to flow across by the thousands. He even closed the border to Kurds who wanted to help the defenders of Kobani, a city in the northern, Kurdish-majority part of Syria – a siege that lasted four months and ended in an ISIS defeat.

Erdogan is a deeply religious Sunni Muslim. He wanted to see the overthrow of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite (Shia) ruling a mostly Sunni country, and he didn’t much care who the opposition were so long as they were Sunnis. He also didn’t want to see a Kurdish mini-state appear just across Turkey’s southern border, so he preferred an ISIS victory over Syria’s Kurds.

But his priorities changed after he lost the June election. Now his own power was at stake, and to keep it he needed a crisis. In fact, he needed a war.

Assuming that the AK Party would not only win its fourth straight election this year but gain a 60 percent majority of the seats in parliament, Erdogan moved on from ten years as prime minister and got himself elected president last year. The presidency is a largely ceremonial office, but with a 60-percent “super-majority” he could change the constitution and make it all-powerful.

But his party didn’t get 60 percent of the seats in the June election. It didn’t get a majority at all: only 258 seats in the 550-seat parliament. The main reason was that the HDP, a party demanding that Turkey’s one-fifth Kurdish minority be treated as equal citizens in every respect, including language, managed to get into parliament.

Most of the HDP’s voters were Kurds, including many conservative and religious Kurds who had previously voted for Erdogan’s party, but its secular and liberal values also persuaded many ethnic Turks to vote for it. It only got 13 percent of the vote, but that was above the 10-percent threshold a party must exceed to win any seats in parliament at all.

The arrival of the HDP changed the parliamentary arithmetic and deprived the AK of its majority. Erdogan could have opted for a coalition, but he was stranded in the powerless presidency, unable to change the constitution, and could not even personally be part of such a coalition government. So he decided to gamble on another election.

The Kurdish votes were not coming back to the AK Party, and the only other possible source were the ultra-nationalists who had been alienated by his peace talks with the PKK. (The talks began and the shooting stopped four years ago, although the official ceasefire was only declared in 2013.)

Now he needed to re-start the war against the PKK, and that would be most unwelcome to his American allies. He solved the problem by saying he would attack ISIS and other “terrorists”, which got Washington on board – but since the Turkish air strikes began in July, they have hit twenty PKK targets for every strike against ISIS. It’s not even clear that Turkey has finally shut its Syrian border to ISIS volunteers.

The PKK is fighting back, of course, but ISIS has not been appropriately grateful that Turkey is only bombing it (quite lightly) for diplomatic reasons. It is almost certainly responsible for all three mass-casualty attacks using suicide-bombers in Turkey this year.

There is only one consolation in all this: Erdogan’s electoral strategy doesn’t seem to be working. A poll last month showed that 56 percent of Turks hold him directly responsible for the new war. The polls also show AK’s share of the vote falling, and that of the HDP rising. Erdogan is facing defeat, and he richly deserves it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Most…election”)