middle east, politics

On Robert Fisk

Published on: Embassy Magazine, January 24th, 2013
[http://www.embassynews.ca/opinion/2013/01/24/foreign-correspondent-fisk-talks-harpers-foreign-policy-and-the-arab-awakening/43154]

Veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk criticized the Harper government’s policy on the Middle East at a public lecture Jan. 22 in Ottawa.

“I regard Mr. Harper as your personal problem, not mine,” said Fisk, who spoke to a packed auditorium of about 500 people at Carleton University. He was in Ottawa as part of a Canadian lecture tour hosted by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Having spent more than 30 years covering the Middle East for The Times and The Independent newspapers of Britain, Fisk’s knowledge of the region commands respect. Although many across the political spectrum may take issue with some of his political views, few doubt the breadth of Fisk’s experience.

This, of course, makes his harsh words toward the Harper government even more powerful. Aside from characterizing the current government’s approach to foreign policy as something “straight out of the Bible,” Fisk also pointed out that the Canadian government lacks imagination and vision when it comes to the Middle East.

“You will find that Western nations in general, their leadership, continue to follow Washington,” he said, “and as long as Washington does whatever Israel wants, which it largely does, there isn’t going to be any change.”

Fisk was of course alluding to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, a problem that continues to plague the region, driving many of the afflicted toward anger and violence. To Fisk, this is the tragic, but prevalent nature of the relationship between the Western world and what it knows as the Middle East.

“The problem is that most of the dictatorships over the years in the region have been supported by us democrats,” he said. Because of this, when Western politicians like George Bush or even Barack Obama speak of “freedom” and “liberation,” the Arabs of Iraq and Palestine, among other places, have a very different perception of those terms than the rest of us.

Their vision of the “West” is an entity that delivers its form of “democracy,” no matter how principled and cogent in theory, through bullets and bombs. For Fisk, it is a bloody way to illustrate what is to him, and many others, an elemental truism: any form of democratic governance in the Arab world must arise indigenously.

The Arab Awakening

So among a largely tragic and self-admittedly “pessimistic” interpretation of events in the Middle East, Fisk views the Arab Awakening (his preferred term) as a “positive development.”

“The term Arab Awakening was the title of George Antonius’ great 1938 book,” Fisk said.

He pointed out that the book was written at a time when Palestine was crumbling out of Arab hands, largely thanks to British policy, or, as Fisk would have it, “British deception.” Britain’s inability to deliver on the promise of Arab sovereignty in return for Arab opposition to the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century reminds one that current trends in the Middle East are not without historical precedence.

Fisk noted that the Arab Awakening has less to do with technology and social media than anger and education.

“When I went to Egypt in the past three or four years, as I often have done over the past 36 years, I find a population that knows more about the outside world,” he said. “Not just through Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but because they’ve travelled.”

Fisk also said that the conditions of higher education in places like Egypt, even under dictatorship, improved drastically. This, combined with a better sense of the outside world, he noted, created an inevitable cosmopolitanism that made it easier for those in the Arab world to have a collective vision. In other words, they began to realize that things did not have to be the way they were.

Though current developments in Egypt, Syria, and other post-revolt nations have not been encouraging, the relatively cynical Fisk said that Arabs still see the Arab Awakening as a generally happy signal. He’s not the only one with this mindset. But for someone who has witnessed large-scale carnage, from the Lebanese civil war to present-day Syria, hope for a brighter future is not easy to come by.

“I lost my crystal ball a long time ago,” he lamented.

Fisk’s criticisms of the Syrian opposition have drawn anger from those who would otherwise agree with him on most other things. He has been quick to stress the “jihadi” elements in the Syrian opposition, along with its chronic corruption and use of violence, while also pointing out that Bashar al-Assad may not fall as inevitably as most would expect. His writings on the matter have elicited accusations that he has fallen for the “conspiracy theories” promoted by pro-Assad circles: a charge that Fisk flatly denies.

Having been in Hama during Hafez al-Assad’s great bloodletting in February 1982, no one can deny that Fisk knows what the tyrannical dynasty of Syria is capable of. But in typical Fisk fashion, he reminded the audience that while Western powers support the at least partially “jihadi” opposition in Syria, France is leading an offensive against similar groups in Mali.

If nothing else, one can draw from Fisk’s vast experience and knowledge the tiring (but worthwhile) reminder that foreign policy has always had more to do with circumstance and convenience than with conviction.

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politics

Justin Trudeau, Palestine and the politics of right-wing smear campaigns

Published on: Rabble.ca, January 7th, 2012
[http://rabble.ca/news/2013/01/justin-trudeau-islamophobia-and-politics-right-wing-smear-campaigns]

Much was made last month about Justin Trudeau’s keynote appearance at one of North America’s largest Muslim conferences. The conference has been accused mostly by sectors of the Canadian right-wing of being an “Islamist” venture.

The Toronto-based Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference ended up accepting the withdrawal of one of its major sponsors, the International Relief Fund for the Afflicted and Needy Canada (IRFAN Canada), because the Canadian Revenue Agency concluded last April that the Mississauga-based organization funded “Hamas-linked” groups. IRFAN then had its charitable status stripped. The CRA’s allegations and conclusions are being challenged in court.

Of course, this is not the first time a bureaucracy under the Harper regime has sought to cripple an organization concerned with Palestinian human rights. The Canadian Arab Federation (CAF) and the ecumenical group KAIROS have all had parts of their operations hollowed out because of a willingness to highlight Palestinian suffering.

It’s all part of the Harper administration’s larger strategic plan to bring Canadian policy, both foreign and domestic, in sync with its Messianic and insular worldview, especially when it comes to the Middle East. But Muslims and Palestinians are not the only ones affected by this sprawling political arrangement.

Over 400 kilometres northeast of Toronto, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is in the fourth week of her defiant hunger strike. She’s protesting the Harper administration’s approach to ‘dealing with’ the worsening conditions on her reserve, and the concerted attack by the government on First Nations sovereignty, as embodied in official legislation (especially the omnibus Bill C-45).

Chief Spence’s protest can certainly be seen as a flashpoint within the broader Idle No More movement, perhaps one of the most promising and exciting national grassroots initiatives in the past ten years.

Indeed, the contemptuous attitude that the Harper administration displays toward the disenfranchised and underprivileged sectors of Canadian society has elicited much grassroots response from Canadian civil society. Idle No More can be seen as a major component of a series of grassroots reactions to the reactionary orientation of the Harper regime (from its handling of the G8/G20 protests to its slashing of refugee medical care).

One of the ways the government has struck back is by withdrawing federal money from NGOs that they don’t see eye-to-eye with. Groups that don’t receive large amounts of federal funding, like IRFAN Canada, are then put through the great smear machine of the Canadian right-wing, an informal but still somewhat coherent group of personalities.

Allegations that IRFAN Canada funded organizations under the control of Hamas are tenuous at best, especially when one looks closely at the Agency’s own documentation on the matter. The Harper government, of course, has trouble tagging what Israel does to the Gaza Strip with the same “terrorist” moniker they so enthusiastically give to Hamas.

Furthermore, the CRA’s actual proof for linking IRFAN Canada with Hamas is a case of very tenuous guilt-by-association. Of the 15 groups the humanitarian organization has given money to, each was designated as “terrorist” because (1) Israel finds it to be “unlawful,” (2) because it has personnel involved with Hamas as legislators, (3) because it’s a Hamas-governed bureaucracy, (4) because it publically “supports families of martyrs, resisters, and detainees” in the Territories, or (5) because it posted pro-Hamas videos online.

That’s the crux of the Agency’s beef with IRFAN Canada. Reasonable people can arrive at their own conclusions of whether these are good enough reasons to hollow out an organization that sponsors orphans in the embattled Gaza Strip, which has been under anillegal Israeli blockade since 2007.

Commentators like Tarek Fatah of Sun Media and others, viewed with a substantial dose of skepticism (if not downright contempt) by the larger Muslim community, have been largely successful in determining the borders of public debate when it come to issues concerning Muslim and Palestinian Canadians.

Almost the exact same script was followed when Citizenship and Immigration Canada, led by Jason Kenney, defunded CAF. Kenney’s main charge was CAF’s “anti-Semitism,” apparently a result of its willingness to point out the same Israeli crimes documented by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others. KAIROS was no different, and involved former Minister of International Co-operations Bev Oda’s decision to “veto” the collective opinion of her entire bureaucracy to fund the ecumenical group.

One can say what one wants about the intellectual integrity of the anti-Muslim right-wing, but the fact that they have a substantial amount financial and infrastructural support for their “work” (shoddy as it may be) is unquestionable. Post-9/11, their agenda and ideological convictions have meshed well with the Harper worldview. Many Canadians have felt their venom, including the Muslim and Indigenous populations, whose public images are currently shaped in many ways by the myths and stereotypes perpetuated by the right.

At times, it’s better to ignore the smear tactics in order to move on. However, it’s important to recognize the extent of the disruption caused by the Canadian right. Time and again, they’ve shown their ability to smear serious organizations doing good work.

Given this reality, Canadian Palestinians and Muslims could use their own Idle No More moment.

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