Media coverage of world affairs mostly focuses on Ottawa/Washington’s perspective. While the dominant media is blatant in its subservience to Canadian/Western power, even independent media is often afraid to challenge the foreign policy status quo.
Is Israel on the verge of civil war, as a growing number of Israeli commentators suggest, with its Jewish population deeply riven over the future of the occupation?
On one side is a new peace movement, Decision at 50, stuffed with former political and security leaders. Ehud Barak, a previous prime minister who appears to be seeking a political comeback, may yet emerge as its figurehead.
The group has demanded the government hold a referendum next year – the half-centenary of Israel’s occupation, which began in 1967 – on whether it is time to leave the territories. Its own polling shows a narrow majority ready to concede a Palestinian state.
On the other is Benjamin Netanyahu, in power for seven years with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. On Friday he posted a video on social media criticising those who want to end the occupation.
Observing that a Palestinian state would require removing hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers currently living – illegally – on Palestinian land, Netanyahu concluded: “There’s a phrase for that. It’s called ethnic cleansing.”
Not only did the comparison upend international law, but Netanyahu infuriated the Obama administration by implying that, in seeking to freeze settlement growth, the US had supported such ethnic cleansing. A spokeswoman called the comments “inappropriate and unhelpful” – Washington-speak for deceitful and inflammatory.
But the Israeli prime minister is not the only one hoodwinking his audience.
Whatever its proponents imply, the Decision at 50 referendum is about neither peace nor the Palestinians’ best interests. Its assumption is that yet again the Israeli public should determine unilaterally the Palestinians’ fate.
Although the exact wording is yet to be decided, the referendum’s backers appear concerned solely with the status of the West Bank.
An Israeli consensus believes Gaza has been free of occupation since the settlers were pulled out in 2005, despite the fact that Israel still surrounds most of the coastal strip with soldiers, patrols its air space with drones and denies access to the sea.
The same unyielding, deluded Israeli consensus has declared East Jerusalem, the expected capital of a Palestinian state, as instead part of Israel’s “eternal capital”.
But the problem runs deeper still. When the new campaign proudly cites new figures showing that 58 per cent support “two states for two nations”, it glosses over what most Israelis think such statehood would entail for the Palestinians.
A survey in June found 72 per cent do not believe the Palestinians live under occupation, while 62 per cent told pollsters last year they think Palestinians have no rights to a nation.
When Israelis talk in favour of a Palestinian state, it is chiefly to thwart a far bigger danger – a single state shared with the “enemy”. The Decision at 50 poll shows 87 per cent of Israeli Jews dread a binational conclusion to the conflict. Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet intelligence service and a leader of Decision at 50, echoed them, warning of an “approaching disaster”.
So what do Israelis think a Palestinian state should look like? Previous surveys have been clear. It would not include Jerusalem or control its borders. It would be territorially carved up to preserve the “settlement blocs”, which would be annexed to Israel. And most certainly it would be “demilitarised” – without an army or air force.
In other words, Palestinians would lack sovereignty. Such a state exists only in the imagination of the Israeli public. A Palestinian state on these terms would simply be an extension of the Gaza model to the West Bank.
Nonetheless, the idea of a civil war is gaining ground. Tamir Pardo, the recently departed head of Israel’s spy agency Mossad, warned last month that Israel was on the brink of tearing itself apart through “internal divisions”.
He rated this a bigger danger than any of the existential threats posited by Mr Netanyahu, such as Iran’s supposed nuclear bomb.
But the truth is that there is very little ideologically separating most Israeli Jews. All but a tiny minority wish to see the Palestinians continue as a subjugated people. For the great majority, a Palestinian state means nothing more than a makeover of the occupation, penning up the Palestinians in slightly more humane conditions.
After many years in power, the right is growing in confidence. It sees no price has been paid, either at home or abroad, for endlessly tightening the screws on the Palestinians.
Israeli moderates have had to confront the painful reality that their country is not quite the enlightened outpost in the Middle East they had imagined. They may raise their voices in protest now but, if the polls are right, most will eventually submit to the right’s realisation of its vision of a Greater Israel.
Those who cannot stomach such an outcome will have to stop equivocating and choose a side. They can leave, as some are already doing, or stay and fight – not for a bogus referendum that solves nothing, but to demand dignity and freedom for the Palestinian people.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.
On one level, an incendiary video posted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend looked suspiciously like an own goal.
In it, Netanyahu argues that a Palestinian demand to dismantle Jewish settlements amounts to the “ethnic cleansing” of some 650,000 Jews living in the occupied territories in violation of international law.
“The Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one pre-condition: no Jews,” he says in the short video posted on Facebook last Friday. “There’s a phrase for that: It’s called ethnic cleansing.”
Netanyahu’s aim was not hard to decipher. He wants yet another obstacle in the way of Palestinian efforts to seek international backing for statehood. It comes as pressure mounts separately from France and Russia for the Israeli government to re-engage in peace talks.
Now Netanyahu can argue that when Palestinian leaders call for a state free of armed, Jewish-only colonies breaking up any hope of Palestinian territorial contiguity they should be labelled as ethnic cleansers.
Backed by Trump adviser
Early indications are that Netanyahu’s upending of international law may quickly win backing from the US right – and potentially from the next US administration, if Republican candidate Donald Trump is elected president in November.
On Sunday, the Haaretz daily quoted Trump adviser David Friedman as agreeing with Netanyahu and accusing the Palestinians of planning to make any future state “judenrein” – the term Nazis used to mean “empty of Jews”.
“It is an entirely racist and anti-Semitic position,” Friedman added.
Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University, told Al Jazeera that Netanyahu’s video should be understood as the flipside of his earlier precondition for peace talks: that the Palestinians recognise Israel as an exclusively Jewish state.
That demand was intended as a trap for the Palestinian leadership, especially given that Israel includes 1.7 million Palestinian citizens who already suffer rampant and institutionalised discrimination.
In Friday’s video, Netanyahu again exploited the existence of this large minority of Palestinians inside Israel to advance his right-wing agenda. He explicitly equated the settlers in the occupied territories with Israel’s Palestinian citizens, saying neither is “an obstacle to peace”.
The implication is that, should the Palestinian leadership insist on the settlers being “ethnically cleansed” from their illegal colonies, Israel would be justified in demanding tit-for-tat. If the settlers have to return to Israel, why not a population swap, with Israel’s Palestinian minority forced into the occupied territories?
Palestinian leaders in Israel understood the danger. Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, wrote at the weekend: “We are not Israeli settlers, Mr Netanyahu … [We] are not foreign immigrants that came to Israel and applied for visas or citizenship … [We] are the indigenous population.”
Jamal said that Netanyahu’s claim would also help him to “set the domestic agenda” against political rivals on the far-right, such as Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, both of them identified with the settler movement. Lieberman has repeatedly announced plans for land swaps that would redraw Israel’s recognised borders to move some Palestinian communities outside Israel in return for the annexation of the larger settlements.
“Neither Lieberman nor Bennett have gone as far as Netanyahu has now in suggesting that the evacuation of any settlement is ethnic cleansing,” Jamal said. “That will strengthen him with his power base on the right.”
Nonetheless, this new condition – that Jewish colonies be treated as untouchable – is diplomatically a high-risk strategy.
If, as Netanyahu claims, “societies that demand ethnic cleansing don’t pursue peace”, what does that say about Israel, a state founded on the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948?
Chemi Shalev, an analyst with the Haaretz daily, noted: “After years that Israel has toiled to prevent the loaded term ‘ethnic cleansing’ from entering the Israeli-Palestinian lexicon, Netanyahu is now pushing it in himself, through the front door.”
As a counter-video hurriedly produced by the Palestinian Authority pointed out, Israel’s founding fathers spoke out repeatedly in favour of ethnic cleansing.
Extending Netanyahu’s logic, another commentator in Haaretz observed that, if Jews had an inviolable right to live on Palestinian land, why should Palestinians expelled in 1948 not have an equivalent right to live in their former homes now inside Israel, in cities like Haifa and Jaffa?
Netanyahu’s claim not only shines an embarrassing light on Israel’s past crimes. Palestinians are currently being driven off their land to allow for the expansion of Jewish-only settlements, with Israel demolishing Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and in West Bank communities, in the Hebron Hills and Jordan Valley.
It is doing the same to Palestinian citizens inside Israel. The homes of 1,000 Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev are about to be demolished so that an exclusively Jewish town – also called Hiran – can be built in their place.
In short, ethnic cleansing – of the kind defined by international law – is very much an ongoing project by Israel.
Then there is the matter of the United States, Israel’s patron. Netanyahu chose to issue his video in English, indicating that it was intended for a foreign as much as a domestic audience.
White House ‘livid’
Publicly, the Obama administration called Netanyahu’s comments “inappropriate and unhelpful”. Behind the scenes the White House was variously reported to be “seething” and “livid”.
That was entirely predictable. In the video, Netanyahu states that “some otherwise enlightened countries even promote this outrage [of ethnic cleansing of Jews]”.
It is hard not to read this as an attack on Washington. US President Barack Obama spent his first term trying unsuccessfully to force Netanyahu to freeze settlement expansion, and has regularly called the settlements an impediment to peace. Last month, US officials were reported to have warned of a “harsh response” if Israel demolished Palestinian homes in the West Bank village of Susiya to make way for settler homes.
So why did Netanyahu choose this provocative course?
The video was certainly not a mistake. It is part of a strategy planned by Netanyahu’s foreign media spokesman, David Keyes. He was appointed in March after coming to prominence for controversial pro-Israel stunts on social media.
Netanyahu has issued eight such videos under Keyes’s direction, many of which have gone viral and are highly popular among his supporters, both in Israel and the US.
Reading US mood
The inspiration for the latest video appears to be Frank Luntz, a high-profile consultant to the Republican party and pro-Israel causes. Famously, he developed a document in 2009 advising Israel’s supporters on how best to make their case. Netanyahu’s ethnic cleansing claim is set out almost word for word at the top of page 62 as the most effective argument with American audiences.
The Trump campaign’s apparent endorsement of the Netanyahu video suggests that the Israeli prime minister may be reading the political climate in the US correctly.
Jamal said that Netanyahu and his advisers intended to severely limit the terms of any future peace process. “Now anyone who demands the evacuation of settlements risks being accused of anti-Semitism,” he said.
Jeff Halper, a founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, agreed that Netanyahu’s goal was to reframe the international community’s assumptions.
“Netanyahu is telling them that there are no more occupied territories and no more settlers,” he told Al Jazeera. “He’s saying, ‘Israel won, and it is time to get used to the reality of a single state’. This is the new normal and he wants the language and thinking of the international community to reflect that.”
Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books).
In early spring, with snow still clotted thick on the ground, my grandmother dies in my parents’ home. We wash her naked body the next day in the basement morgue of the local Scarborough mosque, my hands closer to her skin than they’d ever been in life. There is a gaping hole in her throat where the cancer had eaten through to open air. I can’t remember who cleaned around the wound’s curling black edges. I can’t remember much of how her body felt that morning, except that it was very stiff; mine felt barely less so. We recite my favourite dua, the Muslim funeral prayer: allahumaghfir li haiyyaini wa maiyyatina—God, grant us your forgiveness / for the living and for the dead …
We bury her in a graveyard in Pickering, an hour east of Toronto, wrapped in a white shroud her daughters and grand-daughters twined around her. In the orthodox way, we don’t put up a gravestone, no plaque and no flowers. I send myself an email to remember her plot number. We visit often, commencing a new, far different relationship from the one we’d had through the ravages of her long, croaking dying.
My mother begins a slow, thorny grieving. Time wrinkles around her periodically heaving body. In May, she decides we will make umrah, pilgrimage, in my grandmother’s memory. My immediate family doesn’t do field trips. I can’t remember the last time that we, all seven strong, went anywhere together—we are always too busy or too dispersed.
By month’s end, we are flying to Saudi Arabia for the first time in fifteen years.
Twenty-four years ago, when our family first arrived in Saudi Arabia (I was born in Sri Lanka), the country was at war with Iraq. I was young then, repeating kindergarten to compensate for the ocean-wide migration. We landed in Yanbu, a highly industrialized expat-heavy petrochemical centre, then moved to Jeddah, the country’s grittier seaport commercial capital.
My parents eschewed compounds, those securely gated, miraculously green alternate realities occupied largely by wealthy white Westerners and served mostly by South Asian labourers. Instead, we grew up on hospital premises, so that my doctor mother could walk to work. Bussed between our low-rise apartment building of other doctor families from the global south and my state-run international all-girls school, the war seemed far away.
Still, the fighting found ways to impinge on my heavily regimented childhood of school and home. Sometimes I would call my aunt in Riyadh and hear bombs close by in the background. A weird normalcy hung over our conversations, a sense not so much of resignation as of suspended disbelief. I imagined stony grey rubble unfurling beside them, their building the lone monument still standing. In retelling these years, my mother describes sirens, but I do not remember them.
This was the era of the first Gulf War and the first George Bush. In response to Iraq’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait, the U.S., once supportive of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, convened the largest military alliance since World War II to fight Iraq. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia paid more than half of the war’s $60-billion cost, and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division landed in the deserts of Dhahran, scarcely 400 miles from Madinah.
By then, the U.S. had long been partnering with the wealthy kingdom: during the Cold War, the U.S. had trained al-Qaeda to fight the Soviet Union, and had propagated Saudi religious schools across the world, aiming to use U.S.-funded interpretations of Islam to fight the U.S.S.R.
By my early teens, a marked shift had emerged. With rifts growing between al-Qaeda and the (rest of the) Saudi royal family over U.S. involvement in the war on Iraq, Usama bin Laden became a household name. September 11, 2001 was on the horizon.
As we prepare to fly out of Toronto in 2015, Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, while simultaneously negotiating a $15-billion arms deal with Canada. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s “sunny” soon-to-be prime minister, will spend the election cycle decrying then-PM Stephen Harper for the Conservative-initiated deal, but when elected to power later that year, will himself approve the sale. The light-armoured vehicles, or LAVs, that Canada is to provide to the Saudi Arabian National Guard will reportedly be equipped with, among other things, machine guns that can fire 105mm shells or missiles.
Saudi activists will eventually manage to leak footage of the Saudi regime using LAVs to crush internal civilian dissent, especially against the country’s Shia minority. When confronted with the video, Trudeau refuses to cancel the sale: “We [Canada] are not a banana republic.”
But our departure from Canada is smooth—to my surprise and relief. My brother shares a name with someone on the no-fly list. He’s missed flights before. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare that leaves me enraged, fearful, and despondent by turns. In contrast, my brother, who was in grade school during 9/11, takes it in stride as some kind of Muslim rite of passage.
His experience is hardly unique: there are hundreds of people on this list, including babies. A post-9/11 U.S.-demanded invention, Transport Canada admitted in 2010 that it had listed at least 850 false positives—only three years into the “Passenger Protect Program.”
It’s almost impossible to get off the no-fly list: the Canadian government doesn’t have to tell you that they’ve put you on it, and if somehow you find out that you’ve been blacklisted and attempt to challenge that listing, the government doesn’t have to tell you or your lawyer what evidence they’re using against you to keep you on it. The Orwellian paradox of laws that openly parade their concealment makes it difficult to map, let alone fight, the list’s reach.
Under Trudeau, the no-fly list has been expanded through the so-called “anti-terror” bill C-51. Though the bill was introduced by Harper, Trudeau voted to make the bill an act, and has refused to heed calls for its repeal. Of the act’s myriad racisms, the list, with all the resources required to execute it in airports across the country, perhaps most visibly exemplifies racialized paranoia. But in the nearly two decades since 9/11, Canada has made such ample use of secret trials against Muslims that ultimately the mass surveillance of the no-fly list feels cynically unremarkable.
We land in Jeddah. Though I spent close to a decade of my childhood in this still-familiar dusty city—“the Bride of the Red Sea”—we do not linger. At the King Abdulaziz International Airport, we pile into a van and head to Madinah.
We quickly discover the A/C is broken, so we pull off the highway to grab some pop and shawarmas for the four-hour drive. We enter a sort of strip mall of low-roofed restaurants set a little ways back from the road.
If I had escaped the symbols of war during my childhood here, not so this time. Men mill around us in military uniform, also getting food. Wearing light brown camouflage and traveling in groups, the ease with which these soldiers move through the take-out joints reminds me of my birthplace, Sri Lanka.
After twenty-seven years of civil war, soldiers are as much a part of Sri Lanka’s national landscape as the flora and fauna. My memories of Sri Lanka are as much of checkpoints, soft-jawed teenage boys drooping with the weight of machine guns, and the sunburnt remains of bombed-out commuter buses, as they are of first friendships or the spider-web of familial dramas. After all, a civil war is the war at home; civil war is place imploding in on itself. In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s wars were not, thanks to its domestically relentless and now LAV-equipped autocracy, civil; they were directed elsewhere (such a young country, and so insecure, perennially fighting its neighbours). So I had grown up with Saudi Arabia serving as a foil to my first home, its relative peace counterbalancing the turmoil of the place my family comes from.
(After we return home from the pilgrimage, I talk about the trip with a friend from middle school, and she notes that Saudi Arabia now has checkpoints all over. This is a development since my family moved away in 2000. The war is starting to come home.)
Along our drive, we’re waved through a few such checkpoints. Mostly I sleep through the ride, lulled by the heat and the monotony of the view. We arrive without incident in Madinah.
When we lived here, we visited Makkah and Madinah often. Makkah was where the Prophet Muhammad had been born and was later exiled from; Madinah where he subsequently found refuge and later died. I had always preferred Madinah to Makkah. Officially titled Madinah tul Munawarra—City of Light—I thrilled to the idea of a city named, simply, City; it seemed so confident and cosmopolitan an understanding and demonstration of self.
For millennia, Madinah had been a city without a country, ruled by a shifting patchwork of local and global powers. By the eighteenth century, the House of Saud had emerged as the Ottoman Empire’s chief rivals for control of Madinah. In 1925, Madinah was finally brought under the rule of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Six years later, the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company hit oil in Dhahran. Now called Aramco, it is the world’s most valuable company, with estimates ranging from $1.25-trillion to $10-trillion USD.
Seven years later, in 1945, with the end of World War II in sight, King Abdulaziz and then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt met for the first time. They reached an agreement in which Saudi Arabia would supply oil to the U.S., in exchange for U.S. military protection of the Saudi regime. This agreement remains in effect: it has survived seven Saudi kings and twelve U.S. presidents.
We spend most of our time in Madinah in Masjid an-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque. It is the world’s second-oldest mosque, and the second-holiest site in Islam. Built by the Prophet a year after his migration to Madinah, the mosque was originally about the size of an average house, with pillars of palm trunks and roofs of beaten clay and palm leaves. After his death, under a succession of caliphs, sultans, and kings, the mosque underwent a series of renovations, razings, and reconstructions, until now, at over 50,000 square metres and with a capacity of 1.6 million people, it has become one of the largest mosques in the world.
It is also one of the most opulent. The mosque is a thing of wonder, bedecked in marble floors, cream columns, dizzyingly tall doors and archways. Qurans, hardcover and green-backed, are stacked in gold shelving. Gold chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and every pillar has lamps hung in each of its four corners, each pillar inscribed with the name of God.
A marquee outside declares that photography is prohibited, a decree belied by how liberally the mosque is peppered with security cameras, curving out from behind the pillars, positioned high above our heads.
Female security guards check our bags as we enter. Planted at every door, they rifle quickly through our belongings, flip flops and books and water bottles, before waving us in. The search, short as it is, only ever lasting a few seconds, is long enough nonetheless to bottleneck entry. The guards are quick-sighted, and generally effective at spotting women with bags, but the brevity of their search renders the whole process questionable. No one is entirely sure what they’re looking for and they never say, as they prod incredulously my small pillow.1
Inside, the carpets—thousands and thousands of square feet of them—are thickly embossed with the Saudi state emblem, a palm tree emerging from the crossing of two swords. I can’t remember if the carpets were always designed like this, but it feels now like a deeper obscenity than the wealth on display within the mosque, or the five-star hotels and expensive malls that crowd in on its courtyards.
Today, these carpets feel subtly militaristic, this encroachment of state power into the house of God, this laying claim to the spirituality performed here, the countless palms and foreheads pressed in prayer against this symbol of state conquest.
It’s too full indoors, so at 4 a.m. on a Thursday, my mother, sister, and I are praying on plastic-sheeted walkways in the mosque’s courtyard. My mother wants to attempt the ziyarah, a visit to the rawdah, the Prophet’s grave. The ziyarah has strictly enforced women’s hours; it is otherwise open to men. Being no less desirous of visiting the grave than men, this constriction has resulted in the women’s ziyarah being a full-on scrimmage. We’ve arrived for the women’s sunrise hours.
As we wait for the gates to the gravesite open, the female guards begin organizing the hundreds of women assembled around us into groups.
The racial logic of their ordering quickly becomes apparent. Following some unspoken rule, Arabs are typically allowed entry first, South Asians last. All the guards, irrespective of whether or not they understand that we speak English, point us in the direction of the India/Pakistan grouping, where another guard is lecturing the group in what sounds like Urdu or Hindi.
My mother asks where the gates are, and is ignored, until one guard asks where we are from. Given pervasive racism in Saudi Arabia against Sri Lankans, my mother says Canada, and then, into the blank stare that follows, America. The guard nods vigorously, and point us back to India/Pakistan.
Eventually we settle among some Indonesians. Even if she could understand the guards, my mother neither needs nor wants the lectures being imposed on the pilgrims. She quietly manoeuvres through the guards’ racial obsessions, trying to get us as close as possible to the grave so that we can enter quickly when the gates open.
Over the course of our trip, my family discusses often this disconnect between the mosque as a place of faith and the state as a mechanism of racialized profit and regulation. The crassness on display, mere feet from the Prophet’s grave, feels like yet more proof of this tension. There’s little point raging about it here, it’d be like beating a wall, though a woman close by is in fact telling off security for precisely this. My mother just sits, bides her time, absorbed in prayer. When jetlag rears, we nap briefly. Otherwise, there is too much to see to be bored.
A woman in a sparkly niqab bears down on us, an elderly matriarch on her arm. She asks the guard beside us if there are (in this order) groups for English, Tamil, or Malayalam speakers. After first hopefully pointing out Urdu/India/Pakistan, the guard says no. The city—and indeed the whole country—is in fact full of Tamil speakers, many of them migrant workers hailing from Sri Lanka, whose GDP rests heavily on the housemaids and labourers it exports here. But in the mosque’s policed attempts at language accommodation, the most impoverished of its worshippers and custodians do not register. The two women leave.
It becomes evident that we have seated ourselves in the Arab section. A guard comes up to the edge of our motley group and attempts to dislodge the Indonesian women beside us. They are reading the Quran and ignore her wholly. Her pitch grows increasingly frustrated and quick. Eventually, she wins and they disappear, perhaps to their prescribed spot in the mosque ecology. They are soon replaced by a troop of worshippers robed in electric blue. Behind me, there is a group speaking Telugu. I pick out a few words that mimic Tamil, chief among them “palli,” which in Tamil means mosque.
A flock of women in deep brown chadors swoops by us; the backs of their scarves are imprinted with the address of a tour group in Niger. Sometimes it’s the accoutrements that distinguish the tour groups: fluorescent yellow backpacks here, baby blue headscarves there, green messenger bags, orange lanyards, thick winter scarves the shade of the Toronto Blue Jays logo.
Southeast Asians are by far the easiest to spot, each tour group marked by their particular choice in fabric—huge purple flowers for one group, orange and green forest foliage for another—cut at the wearer’s pleasure into long dresses, tunics, sarongs, pant suits. In each group there is always one noncompliant member: among the purple floral is a woman dressed in a solid and beautifully complementary block of violet. I wonder idly about the cost of coordinating outfits like this, how much work it must entail. I like to imagine the odd one out as the group’s poorest planner. I sympathize.
It is not clear if anyone is listening to the guards on the loudspeakers, who carry on anyway. I exchange smiles with a twelve-year-old in jeans. As the hour for the gate opening nears, women begin to stand up, and an expectant lean ripples through the crowd.
We are let into the rawdah, and the women’s bodies push up tight against each other, everyone’s fleshy parts part of a larger thrust towards the dead. Arms reach out and clasp me as they pass by, bracing themselves against me or pushing me out of the way, as the case may be. There is no compunction in touch. My brothers later describe strolling through the gravesite during the much longer men’s hours.
Meanwhile, the guards are still yelling, “India Pakistan.”
I leave Madinah praying I never hear “idhar aao,” Hindi for “come here,” again. The patience with which the immigrant cleaners and pilgrims put up with the mosque’s daily, inept, and deeply entrenched racisms seems indicative of the Muslim cognitive dissonance on which Saudi Arabia relies: the holiness of this place exists in a different dimension than the profanity so openly on display. Everything that is beautiful about this place seems also laced with disrespect for both the sacred and the human. It falls to the individual pilgrim to carve out worship from the cacophony of ugliness.
On July 4, 2016, the day before Eid, a year after our pilgrimage, a string of bombs goes off across Saudi Arabia: one near the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, wounding two security officers; the next a suicide bomb near Masjid an-Nabawi, killing four officers; and the third outside a Shia mosque in Qatif. In Jeddah, the government arrests a thirty-five-year-old Pakistani migrant worker.
As one of the Middle East’s biggest regional powers, Saudi Arabia is a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS. When Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March 2015, it claimed it did so to protect Yemen from Iran and the world from ISIS, echoing U.S. justifications for its invasion of Afghanistan. It also proudly noted that “U.K. military personnel are providing assistance in targeting and its legal aspects.”
By February 2016, at least 8,000 Yemenis had died, at least sixty percent of them killed by Saudi air strikes. Much of Yemen is on the brink of famine.
In this light, it’s not surprising that Madinah was attacked. It is terrifying and reprehensible, and in the magnitude of the symbolic breach, staggering—but it is not surprising.
What makes a war our war? The Iraq Wars. Are wars named only after the home team? The War on Afghanistan. Is its name the measure of who is doing the killing and who the dying? The War on Terror. If the dead die far from where we can see, are we still at war? The War of Terror.
Our pilgrimage was hemmed on both sides by carnage. At once a site of faith and war, this feels like a central tension in being Muslim in the era of the nation-state. Across the world, we are tied to cities we love in countries we fear.
Assorted content for your Sunday reading.- Peter Moskowitz highlights why we shouldn’t be counting on crowdfunding or other private sources to address social needs. And Lana Payne calls out the attitude of entitlement on the part of the wealthy which h… . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Sunday Morning LInks
No one wants to say unpleasant things about their friends. But what do you do if your friends are engaged in serial misbehaviour and you are getting dragged into it? Do you end your friendships, do you tell your friends to behave themselves, or do you … . . . → Read More: Bill Longstaff: Is our policy on ISIS predestined?
I will politely disagree with a couple of points at the end:
the U.S. is also undermining its own role and influence, not to mention the reputation of all those associated with its ramshackle coalition against IS.
US (and Western) credibility in the Middle East has been dubious to non-existent since Bush II decided to invade both Afghanistan and then Iraq. Our own country’s decade of “loudspeaker support for Israel” wasn’t exactly helpful either. Fundamentally Western interventions in the region have repeatedly created the adversaries we find ourselves facing a decade later. In Afghanistan during the 1980s, western powers funded the Mujahideen, which ultimately gave rise to the Taliban and then al Qaeda. The shadows of war in Iraq (in particular), the unwillingness to call out Israel’s use of white phosphorous against the Palestinians, and the heavy-handed way the Americans conducted themselves in both Iraq and Afghanistan gave rise to ISIS.
The second point that the article alludes to, but quietly sidesteps is the reality that Russia in general has long standing social, cultural and economic ties with the Persian Gulf region in particular, and the Middle East in general. Russia has always been a more natural ally for the Arab states than the western european powers. There are long (as in centuries old) standing ties and connections at all levels. I might personally think Putin is a rather nasty piece of work, but in terms of credibility and understanding of the region, Russia has long had a far more subtle, nuanced understanding than Western powers.
I’ve argued this before, and I will continue to do so. Western interests in the region are purely trade related. We would do well to focus on those issues, and step out of direct military intervention. Provocations from the likes of ISIS are like a teenager trying to poke an adult into giving a reaction. If we react, they win – their propaganda machine makes huge gains from the heavy handed interventions we’ve used in the past. It’s much harder for them to use the Russian interventions in the same way simply because of the connections into Russia that go back centuries. The Western powers represent the “unknown”, and thus easily demonized, factors. To date, ISIS’ provocations amount to rendering unstable the puppet government that Bush II set up in Iraq and capitalizing on the “Arab Spring” destabilization of Syria.
Putin will be a pain to deal with, but in some ways, Russian leadership represents the bridge between western interests and Arab interests from a diplomatic perspective. Russia has strong cross-cultural connections with both regions. It is perhaps time to work with Russia, and use that to develop a trade-centred approach to the region instead of trying to intervene militarily in the geopolitical mess.
In response to the following editorial on the mess that is Syria: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/by-giving-up-on-syria-us-hands-kingmaker-role-to-putin/article28747502/I wrote the following:I will politely disagree with a couple of points at th… . . . → Read More: The Cracked Crystal Ball II: On Syria and Western Involvement
Photo by quapan Turkey is rapidly descending into civil war as the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan deepens its offensive against the Kurdish population, left-wing opposition parties, journalists an… . . . → Read More: Canadian Dimension: Behind Turkey’s war on the Kurds
By Murray Dobbin The next time any of us go out to a restaurant, to a sports event or to a music venue will be imagining what it would be like to be suddenly Read more… . . . → Read More: Cowichan Conversations: Thinking about Paris
U.S. President Barack Obama has referred to the atrocities in Paris as attacks “on all of humanity.” He is wrong, of course. The attacks were specifically directed at France, an ex-imperialist European nation that has a long history of colonizing, oppressing and exploiting the Muslim peoples of North Africa and the Middle East, and that . . . → Read More: Bill Longstaff: Paris—the blowback of imperialism
Young men and women, conscripts, manning the ramparts at Festung (fortress) Europa as legions of desperate migrants approach seeking safety. As the steely commander shouts the order the young defenders reluctantly open fire on the horde knowing they have no other choice – the migrants carry among them a highly infectious strain of cholera.
The longest election campaign in modern Canadian history delivered more than a surprise Liberal majority – it yielded six new Jewish MPs for the winning party: Michael Levitt in Toronto’s York Centre; Anthony Housefather in Mount Royal, and Jim Carr in Winnipeg South Centre – all ridings with large Jewish populations – as well as . . . → Read More: wRanter.com: What does the Liberal win mean for Jewish groups?
Editor’s Note: The sad reality of racism in Israel has been known to many of us for decades–a tragedy for a people which has suffered so much from the racism directed against us. Its first manifestation was in the scorn and discrimination with which Sepahrdic/Mizrachi Jews escaping from Arab countries . . . → Read More: Canadian Dimension: Uri Avnery on Israeli Racism
Thank God for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I say that not because trade is an inherently Jewish issue, nor because I know for certain the recently negotiated deal will be good for Canada, especially since its details have yet to be released. Irrespective of its long-term effects, the TPP might be our only hope to . . . → Read More: wRanter.com: Cultural and religious issues dominate as election day nears
Is that all there was? Given how much praise – and criticism – the Harper government’s strong support for Israel has attracted, it’s somewhat surprising that so little was said about the Jewish state in the Sept. 28 Munk Debate on foreign policy in Toronto. The night’s only exchange on Israel, between Prime Minister Stephen . . . → Read More: wRanter.com: Munk Debate glosses over Israel – is that a good thing?