I can claim to have known Al Jazeera longer than anyone else; I first saw it in 1995 as a reporter on assignment for the BBC; I walked in as it was being built, a concrete shell full of busy laborers who unbeknownst to them were building what would become an Arab phenomenon. A year later I became one of its founding staff, arriving in Doha on a humid summer evening.
In the ensuing years I had many firsts at the channel.
Today I walked out of Al Jazeera for the last time, ending my 15-year association with it, a total of 5458 working days.
Next stop: Human Rights Watch.
Najla Hariri is a woman who possesses two driver's licenses: one issued by Lebanon's Ministry of Interior and the other by Egypt's. You can add a third if you want to count in an international license. But since she is a Saudi Arabian citizen she cannot drive in her country's cities. But she does anyway! You can read more about this determined woman's drive here.
She's not a rebellious teen. Rather, she's a mother in her 40s who believes that "enough is enough". And how right she is. I do not understand how a female doctor, for example, can be entrusted to save a human being's life but not be allowed to drive a car.
So to Najla Hariri and all the other Najlas, we respect you, we believe in you and I salute you.
Yesterday I said the stories of what really happened in Deraa would eventually come out. Today residents of the besieged city have uncovered a mass grave on the outskirts of town as the regime's attempts at crushing the protests continue. According to locals, 13 bodies have been found, including those of a woman and child.
Assad to be Charged?
Meanwhile, the Financial Times quotes Britain's armed forces minister Nick Harvey as saying it's "highly likely" that charges will be brought against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by the International Criminal Court. Is Mr Harvey declaring new policy or is he overstepping the mark in his statement to the House of Commons?
(This post is in response to a recent comment)
One of the failures of the Arab republican regimes has been their inability to create stable societies. The fear in Syria of the outbreak of sectarian hostilities is a possibility that cannot be discounted.
But I think that to say the regime is the guarantor of civil peace in the country is incorrect. I believe that the threat of sectarian strife is actually an indictment of these so-called strong, secure and stable regimes. Saddam's Iraq, Mubarak's Egypt and Assad's Syria are all examples of regimes that have been in place for decades yet at the first sign of trouble the foundations quake and the social fabric begins to bust at the seams.
I do not envy the Christians in the Arab world today. They predate the Muslims, and the Jews predate both. But to pose a question to the question: what if Syria were somehow to be threatened with Western intervention, would the minority regime in power continue to see the Syrian Christians as an ally or would they be viewed with suspicion, a fifth column?
There is no doubt in my mind that we are witnessing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Arab world. Indeed, the calls for revisionism or modernism in Islam cannot be effected by outsiders, or prompted by liberal Muslims or secular Arabs.
If such a transformation were to take place it must be brought about by those with Islamic credentials. I believe that today in the Arab world we are on the cusp of a resurgence of the MB and eclipse of the jihadist current that shook the world with its extremism. However, having said that, I do not believe that the future belongs to the MB or Islamist groups. They are part of the transition. Rather, it is the youth of today who will determine the future of this region. And even within the Brotherhood there have been dissenting voices from within the ranks, emanating from its youth who perceive it as out of touch with modern times.
Along to shepherd this process is Turkey, led by an Islamist government that adheres, so far, to the tenets of democracy and benefits of modernity and global association, cooperation and exposure.
The Americans' tracking Usama bin Laden down to a residential area in Pakistan and not a cave in Afghanistan – indicative in itself of his not being the guerrilla leader he was widely perceived to be by his followers a la Che Guevara – seals the bin Laden chapter. So who is there to address the problem of Islamic extremism of which he was the predominant phenomenon over the past 2 decades? Answer? See above.
Bin Laden was portrayed by his supporters, and there are millions of them, make no mistake, as the standard bearer of a resurgent and defiant Islamic nation. To them he was the courageous fighter, in the face of overwhelming odds, against an unjust world filled with domineering powers where the poor got poorer and the oppressed where crushed even more. He was a prophet of victory in an era of adversity.
But Usama bin Laden was a false prophet. The Arabs are a defeated nation desperately seeking a victory. They have been tremendously let down by their leaders in the age of independence. They have suffered defeat upon defeat in military showdowns, their standards of education have plummeted. The people therefore flocked to the fake, and sometimes extremist, leadership that presented itself as an alternative to the corrupt, failed regimes.
I find it interesting that one of the most prominent Egyptian MB leaders, Abdul Munim abu al-Fotouh, has recently said that he does not oppose the candidacy of Christians or women for the post of president. Abu al-Fotouh has declared that he's running for president and that he will appoint a Coptic Christian or a women as his vice-president, so whether his declaration is out of conviction or merely a campaign statement is open to question. But, nevertheless, it is a very important position.
Which is why I was critical of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya lamenting the passing of bin Laden: "We condemn any killing of a holy warrior or of a Muslim and Arab person, and we ask God to bestow his mercy upon him." Several days later Hamas announced that Haniya's statement did not reflect the position of the Palestinian movement, but the damage had been done.
Back to Syria. I cannot declare with any certainty that the Syrian leadership's choice to employ brute force against the protesters will lead to bloody sectarianism in the country. But it is certainly creating the conditions for it. Occupying mosques on Fridays and denying access to them is very short-sighted. Coming from a minority-led regime it doesn't take a genius to figure out what the protesters, who are mainly from the ruled majority sect, think about it.
I do not necessarily want to see the regime toppled in Syria, nor do I not want to see it ejected from power. That is a matter for the Syrian people to decide. But the fact of the matter is that Syria lags far behind in terms of development and progress.
I both recognize and appreciate the importance of Syria's position at the heart of the Arab world. Many times I played the devil's advocate and defended Bashar al-Assad in heated arguments, hoping against hope that the promise would be fulfilled.
Unfortunately he let me down. And I believe he let down his people and country.
I think the regime in Damascus has lost legitimacy and has been grievously wounded. It is one thing to want it to survive, especially if the survival is deemed to be crucial to the survival of other minorities, but completely another thing to recognize it as the leading force for a better society. Will it continue to be regarded as a guarantor of regional stability, the way it was before the outbreak of dissent on March 15? That is the question being asked and issue being considered by regional and international powers. And when the President's cousin comes out and states that Syria's stability leads to Israel's stability (and vice versa) I view it as pretty desperate.
To deploy tanks and armor in one's restive cities will not gain you the sympathy of the population there. I am waiting for the stories to come out from Deraa once the siege is lifted. I promise you they won't be pretty. For a city to be cut off for so long tells me that something is not right at all.
It is only secure and prosperous states that can guarantee the well-being and voluntary acquiescence of their people. Tito was Yugoslavia's strongman for 27 years. The breakup of the country and the vicious war that tore apart its ethnic and religious fabric began 11 years after his passing. And Tito was viewed as far more benevolent than Hafez al-Assad.
In the Arab world I see dictatorships of ignorance. What they will be replaced with will come from within, the natural by-product of societies that have been repressed and oppressed for decades. But change there will be.
We are now on the cusp of a new era. Muslims will always be the majority in this region. They have ample examples of glorious Muslim empires of ages past. That grandeur was partly the result of the Muslims embracing other cultures and nurturing ethnic and religious minorities. In other words, open minds. According to today's standards it would be called human rights and Muslims need to fight for and defend those rights, not just when it comes to them but also to make sure they employ them for the well-being for all who come under their care.
In Syria, the regime may be able to hang on... for a while. The tanks do help. You may call for a dialogue and maybe some political activists cannot resist the diesel fumes of heavy armor? But what has erupted cannot be extinguished. Not by force. Not anymore. Protesters still demonstrating, week in , week out, attest to that. The longer the use of force continues the greater the animosity, even hatred. And hate is a very difficult emotion to shed.
On September 15, 2010 I blogged about the terrible predicament of the football club I support, West Ham United.
Today, exactly 8 months later, the Hammers were relegated from the English Premier League, firmly anchored to the bottom of the table, 20th out of 20 teams. They went into the away game at Wigan needing to win to have any chance of avoiding the drop. The first half ended 2-0 to West Ham. The game finished 3-2 to Wigan! Immediately after the match West Ham fired their manager Avram Grant.
One of the best quotes I read about West Ham during this season was, "Avram Grant - any club that hires him really deserves him."
It was Grant who oversaw Portsmouth's relegation from the Premier League last year. He did it again this year with West Ham.
The writing was on the wall throughout the season. Which, I suppose, is why I'm not really upset about it!
The latest round of sectarian strife in Egypt has brought the issue of Christians in the predominantly Muslim Middle East back to the fore. I do not believe that what we have witnessed in Egypt is a sectarian confrontation. It is ignorance.
If one is interested in a game of one-upmanship then there are many resources available for proving or disproving why one religion is superior to the other, more righteous, correct, genuine, true etc. If comparing and contrasting one might as well extend the argument to the differences and subsequent advantages/disadvantages, between social classes, races, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
None of that interests me. I, for one, am grateful for the blessing of having Christians in the Middle East. It makes for a more diverse, culturally rich existence that, in my view, promotes understanding. There will always be an undercurrent of rivalry and, sadly, flashes of violent confrontation as witnessed in Egypt over the past decades.
It is important to note that Christians in the Arab world have not, in general, spent the better part of the past 14-plus centuries getting slaughtered by Muslims. I strongly recommend Zachary Karabell's People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West for an in-depth study of the subject.
When states across the centuries have been prosperous, successful and secure minorities have not had major problems. And the reverse is true. Think of the global financial crisis of the past few years and the accompanying rise of the anti-immigrant politics, sentiment, and attacks in Europe and the United States.
Thus the Armenians, for example, lived their lives for several hundred years under the Ottomans as other religious minorities did; not in line with 21st Century standards but in generally quite acceptable conditions for that time and age. It was the decay and eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire and rise of Turkish nationalism (Young Turks) that led to the terrible genocide perpetrated against the Armenians between 1915 and 1917.
It is worth recalling here the words of French philosopher Jean Bodin describing the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman in the Six Books of the Republic (1576): “The great emperor of the Turks doth with as great devotion as any prince in the world honor and observe the religion by him received from his ancestors; and yet detests he not the strange religions of others; but to the contrary permits every man to live according to his conscience... and suffers four diverse religions: that of the Jews, that of the Christians, that of the Grecians, and that of the Mahometans.”
Incidentally, while the West has almost always described Suleiman as the Magnificent, in Turkish he was kanuni Sultan Sulayman, ie Suleiman the Lawgiver. He is one of only 23 famous lawmakers whose likenesses adorn the walls of the US House of Representatives.
With the Spanish reconquest of Iberia the Jews of Spain sought and were given shelter by the Ottomans. And it was in Muslim Spain that the world witnessed the grandeur of a society that brought together Jew, Christian and Muslim.
Today the Christians in the Arab world face a stark reality. The Arabs have lived under occupation, colonization, mandate or in defeat for the better part of the past few centuries. That the Ottomans, fellow Muslims, ruled for a few hundred years large tracts of Arab lands and peoples tempers the fact but does not entirely remove the sting for they are guilty of their own transgressions. A nascent Arab nationalist movement (end of 19th-early 20th Centuries) strongly influenced by Arab Christians came to naught. At the end of World War I and with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire Western powers carved the region with scant regard for its native inhabitants. With a newly born Israel in the background, the advent of Gamal Abdul Nasser and his Free Officers movement in 1952 prompted the Arab masses to believe that salvation was at hand. Instead Nasser eventually oversaw the loss of what remained of Palestine and set the stage for copycat coups branded as “revolutions” in Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Libya.
Still Arab Christians remained influential. Michel Aflaq established, with Salah al-Bitar, the Arab Baath (Renaissance) Party. The Arab defeat in the 1967 war dealt a severe blow to Nasser but empowered the Palestinian guerrilla movement. Among its most influential characters was George Habash, a Christian. A secular current still permeated the Arab world. It all came to an end in the mid-to-late 1970s with the gradual disengagement of Egypt from the Arab world and the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975.
While the right-wing Lebanese Christians sought, and received, Israeli and then Syrian assistance, left-wing Christians fought on the other side of the conflict alongside their Muslim brethren and the PLO. And while Christian east Beirut was essentially cleansed of its Muslims inhabitants, thousands of Christians, Lebanese and Palestinian (including George Habash), continued to live and thrive in Muslim west Beirut. At the beginning of the conflict innocent civilians were murdered because of the sect indicated on their ID cards-hence “ID killings”. A couple of decades later while researching my War of Lebanon documentary I was told a joke which was presented as a true story: a fighter incensed at the slaughter of Muslims declared, “I want to slaughter a Christian,” to which his companion replied, “I have an excellent Christian for you to murder.” “Really, who?” “George Habash.” Silence...
Today, resistance in the 1980s to Israel's occupation of Lebanon is wrongly attributed to Hezbollah. In fact it was the secular parties that established the Lebanese National Resistance Front in 1982 and these parties were either led by or included Christians in their ranks. One of underground resistance commanders was Elias Atallah, a Maronite Christian.
I point this out because today Christians in the Arab world are described by either errant, extremist or fundamentalist Muslims as outsiders or even kuffar, non-believers. However, the Quran clearly establishes that Christians and Jews are people of the book with whom Muslims can freely interact and even marry.
The bankruptcy of the Arab nationalist movement gave rise in the 1970s to Islamism. The momentous assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 heralded the birth of the reputation of modern-era Muslim militants as fearless and fearsome. The stage had already been set by battle for the representation of Islam. It pitted on one side a still-shaken puritanical Wahabi Saudi Arabia, fresh out of the earth-shattering occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Juhayman al-Otaibi and his band of followers, and on the other by Ayatollah Khomeini's Shiite Iran, flush with the success of a popular revolution which the mullahs claimed as their own and set about trying to “export the revolution”.
In the face of Tehran's zeal the world (ie the West) chose the Saudis who expanded their operations, philanthropic, educational, charitable, etc throughout the world, unhindered. Nay, they were encouraged.
That influence became evident in the Afghan war (1979-1989) when thousands upon thousands of young Arabs poured into Afghanistan to join the jihad against the “Godless” Soviets. Enter Usama bin Laden.
To defeat its archrival the USSR, the United States had created the foe with which it would do battle into the 21st Century!
The rise of political Islam meant, by necessity, the eclipse of secular currents in Arab societies. While the late (and devout) Yasser Arafat surrounded himself with Palestinian Christians and never tired of repeating “our Christian and Islamic holy sites [in Palestine]” his words were lost amid the din created by Islamist Hamas which viewed things through a singularly Muslim kaleidoscope. To be labeled secular was equal to an accusation of heresy.
Inevitably that meant the Christians also suffered. Grasping at straws, Islamists saw in “resistance” the only path to victory. In Hamas-ruled Gaza Christians became a target, Hosni Mubarak's age of mediocrity in Egypt witnessed further sectarian strife, Iraqi Christians suffered terrible attacks in the post-Saddam era and French monks were gruesomely murdered in Algeria. At the same time the Muslim populations were languishing under the some of the most brutal regimes in the world.
It is hardly surprising that the end product was increasingly insular, almost xenophobic societies that clung and cling to what they perceive as their only salvation: religion.
The suffering of minorities is not restricted to Christians. The Kurds have endured great injustices and violations in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Unfortunately the current turmoil in the Arab world as a new chapter of history is being written means little time is given to address the issue of religious and ethnic minorities in the Arab world.
But it will be a shame if the exodus of Christians from the Arab world continues. We will all be the poorer for it. They are an intrinsic part of the fabric of our societies in the orient and have made great contributions. Were would we be today without the Taklas who established the Egyptian daily al-Ahram? And Gibran Khalil Gibran's sublime literature? Or the wondrous voice of Fairuz, the Lebanese diva?
What kind of an Arab world would it be without Christians to visit and celebrate with on Christmas and Easter, and to receive in Muslim homes during Eid?
For me it means emptiness and a profound sense of sorrow.
It is not Islam that should be blamed for what we are witnessing. Nor Christianity. It is ignorance, nurtured and preserved by decadent and bankrupt regimes and movements and overseen by a world more interested in a constant supply of oil and the mirage of regional stability in an area that has witnessed since 1948, on average, a war every 8 years.
This is a crucial period in the history of the Middle East. It is either a new era or a false dawn. The desire for liberty is genuine, the hope for a bright future real. Somewhere in the plans being initiated for reformed systems of government must be a place, a cornerstone, for tolerance and understanding. Religion is faith, it is belief, not a sword brandished nor a diktat imposed. The religious and the men of religion, of which I'm not, need to speak to their followers, to preach the message of peace, because that's what religion is all about. Or so I believe.
The regime in Damascus has fallen into a trap of its own making: it has taken the relative silence of the international community and the media's lack of prominence given to the Syrian issue as tacit approval for its military campaign to suppress popular dissent.
President Bashar al-Assad has received several messages over the past few weeks, and they have all gently prodded him in the direction of reform and excluded his person from any criticism. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called him a “reformer”, which he's not. Turkey lent him its support, France announced that the situation in Syria is incomparable to the one in Libya while Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim announced his country's opposition to sanctions against Syria. Most recently Bahrain's Foreign Minister arrived in Damascus with a message of support for Syria's stability, security and reform under the leadership of President Assad. That message is quite significant for 2 reasons: it can be considered a message of support for Assad from the GCC as a whole and not just Bahrain, and it comes from a country that is at loggerheads with Syria's most important backer and ally, Iran. Thus the message contains a message in itself.
Among the sanctions proposed by the Europeans none include the president's person while one is an arms embargo. Ouch! That's bound to hurt Damascus whose only source of weaponry is Russia! The message is clear: we are giving you a grace period to save your skin and your regime.
Unfortunately, President Bashar al-Assad is unable to fulfill the promise. The regime has so far killed an estimated 800 Syrians and arrested 7000. It is obvious that after a 10-day siege and subjugation of Deraa that the regime's strategy is to identify the trouble-spots and subjugate them by force. It is collective punishment at its worst. Analysts have described the use of tanks and armored fighting vehicles against Syrian civilians as “shock and awe”. Actually there's another term for it: terrorism. It is a strategy intended to terrorize the civilian population and prevent it from protesting. As does the treatment meted out to those who are arrested, as described in this report by the Independent:
Soon, an enormous man in a white T-shirt and pyjama bottoms emerged from behind the curtain. He seized a young teenager and took him behind the barrier. "He was there for around three minutes," said Mohammad. "All I could hear was his screams. When he was brought back out his head was covered in blood. They had tried to slice half of his face off."
The person most widely accused of heading the repression is Maher al-Assad, the President's brother. It should be hardly surprising that he would resort to such brutality against the Syrian people considering that, as a result of a family dispute, he shot his brother-in-law in the middle of the presidential palace in 2000.
Unfortunately for Syria, Bashar al-Assad has sown the seeds of sectarian strife into this internal upheaval that was and remains largely peaceful and non-denominational. It is something an increasingly exasperated Turkey recognizes and fears.
The regime's tactics are bound to fail, even with the mounting allegations of Iranian advice and support for the Assads.
The Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian armed forces, President Assad on Friday, May 6, marked Martyrs Day while his troops were busy cracking down on protesters. Strangely, after the one demonstration in support of the regime following his disastrous speech in parliament, there have been no further such rallies.
The regime is emboldened by the international complicity in the flagrant violation of human rights.
That Syria's mostly-Sunni middle class has not joined the protest en masse is no cause for celebration because a wedge is being driven, firmly, slowly and surely between the sects of the country.
The regional and international powers are ignoring one important factor: the dynamics of a popular rebellion have a momentum of their own. Some respected Syria experts believe Bashar al-Assad still has a slim chance of rescuing the situation, but even they think that it's quickly slipping away.
Politicians are advised to head to their nearest mall and seek out the kids amusement area. There they will inevitably find a Whac-a-Mole gaming machine, and no matter how many times and how hard you whack the moles, they always pop back up. The world's leaders are well-advised to urgently confiscate the mallets and stock up on tents, fire blankets and extinguishers.
The oft-repeated logic is that by propping up the regime in Damascus and helping it regain the upper hand, at whatever cost, the world is avoiding a firestorm. But rather than dampening the flickers of freedom the powers-that-be are assisting the rise of a much bloodier and violent conflict.
Now what was that about giving someone some rope to hang himself with...
It is now obvious that there is a mole inside Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi's inner circle.
On April 25th he survived a missile strike on his office inside the Bab al-Aziziyya barracks. Less than a week later another missile strike killed his youngest son, Saif al-Arab and 3 of his children.
The arguments in the international press right now are whether NATO is engaged in assassination.
But the real story is that someone in Gaddafi's inner circle is obviously reporting his movements, very accurately, in real time.
It is an indication that the alliance recognizes the seriousness of the deadlock as well as the ineffectiveness of the Libyan rebels and wants to end the stalemate in Libya urgently.
The colonel will now, after overcoming his natural fury, sorrow and rage, no doubt want to exact retribution. The vicious pounding Misrata is currently taking is an indication of the Libyan leader's anger. He is not stupid. He will realize that someone is transmitting intelligence about his whereabouts to his opponents. The race now is for Gaddafi to weed him out or NATO to make it pay. Assuming the alliance is willing to pursue this tack further in the face of the criticism of its "assassination" tactics, which it naturally denies.
Taking a leaf from Gaddafi's notebook, the following video purports to show what I assume are supposed to be hallucinogenic pills destined for distribution to protesters in Syria and intercepted by the regime's ever-alert security services.
Now who would do such a thing?
Ta da! The pills are packed in bags bearing the logo of: Al Jazeera! Who else! And you hear the intelligence guys saying, "Let the Syrian people see... This is Al Jazeera? Are these ethics? Is this the freedom they want?"
I've worked at Al Jazeera for the past 15 years, heck I helped launch it in 1996, but it never entered my mind that the real reason for Al Jazeera's success is that we're drug dealers!
Whoever said that the phrase "intelligence service" is a contradiction in terms was right!
A man on a long journey through a perpetual desert.
The opinions expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the views of any of my employers, past, present or future.