Tony Blair is the world’s greatest threat to rational thinking

Mr Blair, you will have us on. Tony Blair joked the other day in an interview with the BBC that radical Islam is the world’s greatest threat. He said that Islamic fundamentalists will stop at nothing to get their hands on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and that since 9/11, we “could not take chances on this issue”.

For the sake of clear heads, I would like to exercise disagreement. First, a quick history lesson. The whole Islamic radicalism threat to the world was the creation of the colonial powers, Britain, France and the US foremost among them, and Israel. Resistance to colonialism and occupation in all its forms has been a feature of intellectual and political life in the Muslim world for a long time now. Where it started is debatable, but the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and largest political Islamic group, was founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. It did not rise out of the sand. The Brotherhood, which brought us Hamas, was formed in reaction to European colonialism in Arab and Muslim countries. By no means are all its adherents or actions violent, but it nonetheless strikes fear into the hearts of white people who do not understand it, as well as reactionary governments like Egypt’s.

Since then, the United States especially has repeatedly penetrated the Middle East with its well-meaning but disastrous policies, culminating in the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Muslims see Israel’s repression and killing of their co-religionists as an extension of this policy. As I have written elsewhere, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was most stark after the Six Day War, which, incidentally, is when US support for Israel took off. If anyone wants to know why terrorists attacked the US so ferociously, they need but pick up a history book. They will see support for brutal regimes, oil plundering, cruise missiles and dead Arabs. Unfortunately, when the history books were most needed, on 9/11, they were not consulted.

Let us next consider Mr Blair’s fear that radical Islamists will acquire nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Having learned how unlikely that is from people who think and research for a living rather than speak, we can largely discard that idea. The most dangerous place for Islamist violence at the moment is Pakistan, where it is truly a major problem. However, even in Pakistan, the nukes are under lock and key, and they cannot be detonated with a simple strike of a hammer like everyone seems to think. Furthermore, even the most devout of the violently religious have shown they are not desperate to kill everyone in the world, just enough that they can achieve their political goals. Of all the reasons that were given prior to taking out Saddam, Mr Blair has settled on one: “his breach of United Nations resolutions over WMD.” The irony that Mr Blair’s government broke international law in order to uphold it was apparently lost on him. He says he is sorry for the faulty intelligence, but not for the war.

As important as his warnings of Muslim evil are, Mr Blair’s assumption is that we should focus all our efforts on combating Islamic extremism. Never mind what one man thinks: what do YOU think? Do you think that Islamic extremism is more dangerous than AK-47s, which have killed some hundred million people? Is it more of a threat to your life than climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters? Even the people of Pakistan are more at risk from floods than Muslim suicide bombings. Or if it is better to attack people’s ideas, why not push to eradicate nationalism and racism? If we want to avoid preventable death, we can start by ending those bad ideas. Radical Islam should be much further down the list. Finally, a truly radical idea that Mr Blair would likely scoff at: end the state’s ability to wage unnecessary war. But that one is just utopian.

Look at the war in the heart of Africa and tell me Mr Blair’s pet project kills more people or creates more suffering. If you want to stop something, stop the killing and rape in the Congo.

But perhaps when Mr Blair says “the world” he means Europe and North America. After all, scary Muslims chanting foreign languages seems a greater threat to the local ways of life to read any conservative newspaper’s editorial section nowadays.

If Islamic extremism is getting worse, it is because of the same reasons Muslims have been angry at Europeans for the past two hundred years since Napoleon, and during the Crusades: perceived foreign occupation. How many Muslims have to be bombed until the decision makers realise that?

The main reason Tony Blair wants us to believe that radical Islam is going to kill us all is to provide justification for his failed policies. We humans have a bias that makes us seek out legitimacy for our actions long after we have taken them. If we close our minds, which politicians almost have to do to keep their consciences under control, our beliefs get stronger with time. We can see the clues: in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom and throughout the massacre in Mesopotamia, Mr Blair and his contemporaries warned endlessly of “terrorists'” acquiring WMDs; now he is repeating the refrain. (You will find he still has company.) Thank you, Mr Blair, for your humour, but I think it is lost on us.

Mexico’s drug dead and the Narco War Next Door

This video has all of what I suggested anti-War on Drugs rhetoric should: ethos, logos and pathos. An American reporter goes to Mexico to research the state’s losing fight against narcotraffickers, and between interviews with top law enforcement officials witnesses scene after scene of dead victims of the War and their screaming mothers. When not racing to the next murder, Laura Ling exposes the systemic official corruption and the illegal flow of firearms to the narcos from the US that make it such a difficult problem to solve with more police and more weapons.

The chain of future conflict, part 2

See part 1 here.

A ship carrying Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka has landed on the shores of my hometown in Canada. Some of them may be members of the Tamil Tigers, but there are hundreds of men, women and children on board.

This event is not an isolated incident. First, it is not the first boatload of Tamil refugees to wash up on Canada’s shores since the end of the civil war last year. Second, it is not the first boatload of refugees from the wartorn world to appear in the rich world. This ship is part of a trend that we would be foolish to ignore or misread.

When originally outlining the chain of future conflict, I posited the following pattern.

* Climate change and other environmental damage will put pressure on and destroy local environments in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
* People will be forced to move to other countries to survive.
* Barriers to immigration will rise.
* Those who are kept out will fight with the elites over scarce resources.
* Those who make it into other countries will be looked upon as wretched and unable to integrate.
* The incidence of war among those whose environments are threatened, whether or not they migrate, will increase.
* A new kind of refugee, the Environmental Refugee, will emerge.

The refugee boat trend is slightly different, as it is not related to environmental change but conventional war. War and conflict have not abated in our brave new world and are not ready to end any time soon. As a result, more refugees will appear on the shores of the rich world.

The immediate reaction is to raise barriers to immigration. The US border with Mexico, for instance, which is fighting a terrible drug war, is the object of a debate on whether to erect an enormous fence to keep Mexicans out. The Canadian government’s approach to the Sri Lankan refugees has so far been somewhat more compassionate: letting them alight in Canada and then determining if they should be sent back or not.

This approach may be the most realistic, at least at the moment. However, should refugee numbers increase, it might become wishful thinking. Criminalising refugees tends not to decrease numbers of refugees but increase the amount of violence employed in both bringing them in and sending them back. Sending Canada’s navy to intercept today’s boats costs money. If too many boats come, which is the fear, more naval vessels will be dispatched to stop them. At some point that I will let economists estimate, it could cost more money to stop people coming in than to let them in.

Moreover, criminal syndicates are heavily involved in human trafficking and their income and power increases when a market is prohibited. If there is demand, someone will fill it; if the act is illegal, it will continue but in the form of crime.

The current course may be politically and economically realistic at present, but if trends continue we will need new policies and attitudes to survive the possible nightmares of the future. Putting more effort into ending war and environmental destruction is one possibility. More intercultural education and integration is another. Criminalising everything we find unpleasant is not.

Karzai’s Compromises

Hamid Karzai is quite the shrewd politician. He realises that his foreign friends with the big guns could be leaving Afghanistan soon, and is expending considerable effort to ensure that he remains in power after they leave.

Renewed efforts to shore up local Afghani defense forces are meeting with the approval of Karzai and General David Petraeus, who knows as well as Karzai that the US and its allies are on the way out. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a hilarious political euphemism, once called the groups they are trying to form “community defense initiatives“. Such local forces are, in effect, militias or paramilitary units that are supposed to fight the Taliban or keep it at bay (or, to the truly deluded, dismantle and destroy it). But there are a couple of reasons why that might not happen.

First, it is unlikely that these local forces feel much loyalty to Hamid Karzai or his government, which is seen by many Afghans as a puppet of foreign occupiers. Even if Karzai were seen as legitimate, ordinary Afghans are not likely to respect a government that forces them to pay large portions of their income in bribes for public services. They may even join the other side. There is no reason to think they would be less loyal to the Taliban than anyone else who might pay their salaries. These bands of fighters will not protect Afghanistan but only their friends and family. If there is a more effective route to doing so, for instance getting paid better by income from poppy farming, which might come from anyone, they could take it.

Second, Karzai is making deals with the Taliban, too. The consummate pragmatist, Hamid Karzai realises that the Taliban is strong, stronger than he, and without thousands of ISAF troops behind him, his future is uncertain. The US government has blacklisted many Taliban leaders by name, which means placing them on a UN list presumably so that they are not allowed to fly or talk to officials anywhere the US or UN have enough influence to stop them. Hamid Karzai asked the UN to remove as many as 50 of the names from the blacklist so that he could talk to them. Besides the fact that they are not all terrorists (whatever American authorities say), Karzai is reaching out to those who will want to wrench power from him when he is weak.

Hillary will visit Kabul soon for an international conference on Afghanistan after her present trip to Islamabad. (Her visit and its urgency were heralded by a suicide bombing in Kabul yesterday, not far from the US embassy.) She will likely discuss the US’s plans for reintegrating low level Taliban, the militias, anti-corruption efforts and aid, all of which are meaningless if there is no strong commitment to them for the next ten or twenty years. But we do not have ten or twenty years. The Barack administration plans to begin, carefully, to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2011, a year before an election. 2011 and 12 could be interesting years for the short term future of Afghanistan; however, its medium and long terms are in the hands of Afghanis. A British withdrawal is scheduled for 2014; however, if British forces suffer inordinate casualties due to increased pressure from Afghan fighters, the curtain may fall before then. Karzai will attempt to make it look as if he was the strong leader who demanded that the foreign troops leave. The real reason ISAF troops are leaving, however, is because the citizens they answer to are no longer convinced it is in their interest to shore up another corrupt dictator of a failed state.

If all these deals and olive branches and community defense initiatives work, it could mean that the US government claim that Afghanistan will fall apart if it leaves might turn out false. Again, Karzai is a shrewd politician, which means he is a power broker, and his remaining in power for now might mean an end to the decades of conflict Afghanis have had to endure. Either way, Karzai’s actions are a clear indication that relying on the ISAF to always be there would be foolish.

Funerals, the Turkish public and war with the PKK

Anti-PKK demonstration in Turkey

For the past two decades, the Turkish military has been at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group once fighting for independence from Turkey for the nation’s Kurds (but now probably just fighting for amnesty). The conflict has become a drawn out war of attrition, and some 40,000 have been killed. Some of the 40,000 have been Turkish soldiers. We see in Turkish public reaction to the killing of Turkish soldiers a hardening and increased polarisation of attitudes, a push for an escalation of the fighting against the terrorists. This reaction can be found at the soldiers’ funerals.

Like most modern nationalists, Turkish nationalists consider Turkey’s territorial integrity inviolable. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey (Atatürk means father of the Turks), laid out the principles of the new Turkish nationalism in the 1920s, and one of them was complete independence and sovereignty over the land Turkey covers. Moreover, while Turkey comprises some 73 ethnic groups, they are all considered Turks. Ethnic Kurds, whose ethnic consciousness stretches back before the 20th century, and who make up about 20% of Turkey’s population, had their dreams of independence turned down. Atatürk’s successor, Ismet Inonu, stated “Only the Turkish nation is entitled to claim ethnic and national rights in this country. No other element has any such right.” Any movement perceived as inimical to the homogenisation of Turkey’s people and the unity of its borders needed to be crushed. The Turkish military would ensure, and die for, this principle. When soldiers die defending nationalist principles, nationalists grieve.

Though different cultures face death differently, such grieving mechanisms as crying, fear and anger are universal. People most commonly go through feelings of shock, disbelief and numbness, then guilt, attempting to comprehend the death, and in the end, recovery. Funerals take place near the beginning of this process, when people are still shocked, afraid, angry and ready to point fingers. Far from being a catharsis, funerals may fuel anger at the perpetrator. For years now, funerals for Turkish soldiers have become rallying grounds for expressions of anti-PKK sentiment.

In September 2006, dozens of Turkish soldiers died in skirmishes with the PKK in the latter’s one time stronghold, the southeast of Turkey. At the funeral of one soldier, thousands of people protested. The protest was as much pressure on the Turkish authorities to act as it was protest against the PKK. The government had recently introduced legal reforms proposed to let the air out of some Kurdish grievances, but they may have been too little, too late. The reforms may also have been merely cosmetic, designed to appease the European Union but do nothing to stop terrorism. An election was ten months away, and no party expecting to win could afford to look soft on terror.

October 2007 saw more fighting and killing between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish militants. Headlines in Turkey declared that the PKK wanted to split Turkey, they wanted war, they wanted to damage Turkey as much as possible. During one soldier’s funeral in Bursa, in northwest Turkey, 10,000 people are said to have paralysed traffic to protest and, in effect, demand military action against, the PKK. “We are all soldiers, we will smash the PKK“, they chanted in front of a mosque. Government and military officials attended the funerals, which were held 11 provinces in Turkey and broadcast live on several television stations. About a fifth of the population of a town southeast of Ankara demonstrated, shouting “the martyrs are immortal, the motherland is indivisible,” and “hang Apo”, the PKK’s jailed founder and leader. Each protest reflected and spurred a rising anti-PKK (and inevitably among some, anti-Kurd) nationalism in Turkey.

As a result of this pressure, along with political battles also taking place at the time, Turkey’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to grant the military greater freedom in the war on the PKK and approve of incursion into northern Iraq, where the PKK were hiding out. On February 21, 2008, between 3000 and 10,000 Turkish soldiers deployed in the region in Turkey’s biggest offensive in a decade. (See more on the incursion here.) But the violence did not abate, and five months after the conclusion of hostilities, the PKK struck again, this time on a street in Istanbul. Such incessant terrorism leads quite easily to the feeling among Turks that the terrorists are insatiable and will stoop to any level.

I should note that anti-Kurdish racism is not exploding. A survey of Turks and Kurds in 2009 found most willing to have the other marry into their families. Moreover, terrorism was not the most important issue to those surveyed–it was third, after the economy and unemployment. Nonetheless, the pressure on the government to act to end the war has not ended.

Attacks have occurred more recently (see here and here, for example). One online Turkish news outlet describes the soldiers killed and their funerals. At one, thousands of people, including senior military officers, attended. The crowd chanted “the homeland is indivisible” and “Kurds and Turks are brothers, separatists are hypocrites”. Eight Army Corps Commander Mustafa Korkut Özarslan spoke at the funeral, vowing that the Turkish army would never allow the PKK to achieve its goals. The people of Turkey are not about to let this conflict end inconclusive.

The unbeatable logic against the War on Drugs

How is the War on Drugs still not over? Why are drugs still illegal? The testimonies, the moral arguments, the numbers: all point with inescapable logic to the fact that drug prohibition and its enforcement is more costly than its alternatives. More and more people are speaking out against it: see here, here, here and here for news articles written just in the past two days by mainstream media outlets concerned that the War on Drugs is unwinnable, unnecessary, an attack on our freedoms and an assault on the lives and livelihoods of millions. I will let their words explain the arguments further. Suffice it to say, nearly every country in the world, every major city, is feeling the pain of organised crime and state violence.

More violence is being employed in the fight against the “scourge” of drug trafficking. I was under the impression that the targeting of poppy farms in Afghanistan would be terminated, and I approved. It turned out, however, that we were misled. The violence against Afghan poppy farmers has just taken a dangerous and probably illegal twist.

We need a shift in mindset. Very few problems are permanently solved with laws, police, violence, repression, incarceration or war. We treat the mentally and physically ill like patients, smokers as victims and drug users as criminals. We ignore the quiet but powerful special interests that perpetuate the War on Drugs. And democrats need to believe in and use the power of their political system to change failed and foolish policies. I suggest writing to your congresspeople or members of parliament to legalise all drugs, to help make the world safer and smarter.

As logical as the arguments against the War on Drugs are, they may require an infusion of pathos, the other element in a persuasive argument. I would like to see more articles like this one prominently displayed in newspapers. The photo that greets is of a body, freshly bathed in blood from Jamaica’s drug war, and the article title is “Jamaica bleeds for our ‘war on drugs'”. Let mainstream media show more of the victims of this wrongheaded policy and ask more of the questions that need to be asked: when will American politicians rebuff the special interests and do what is right; when will foreign state representatives reject American pressure to fight their war; when will the people on the fence start paying attention and acting; when will more media join in the chorus.

At the moment, entrenched interests are blocking chances at reform. But there is hope. As even in the notoriously conservative United States a rising number of people is in favour of legalising marijuana, there are ever more signs that the War on Drugs is coming to an end. Those of you who agree with me, keep pushing: soon the scales will tip.

War crimes in Sri Lanka, but does it matter?

International law exists partly to deter the worst actions by governments. But so many violations of international law go unpunished. Much has been done by international actors such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its sponsors, and national courts invoking universal jurisdiction such as Spain’s and Britain’s to end impunity. But in general, international law is very hard to enforce and impunity is the rule, not the exception.

That is why the opening of a new chapter in the debate about war crimes committed by Sri Lanka’s government against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) might be pointless. Several groups, including Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, accuse the Sri Lankan government of war crimes. But while these groups can investigate, put together reports, publish findings and so on, they have no power to bring criminals to justice.

Leaving aside the fact that both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers probably violated international law, the remaining question is, does it matter? Will anyone be brought to justice over it? The ICC has done a reasonably good job so far, with the help of national authorities, in prosecuting the most egregious offenders, but the fact that many of its indictees, such as Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, run free, is testament to the challenges the system has yet to overcome. But the progress made since World War Two has been impressive. It should continue. All Sri Lankan leaders, Tamil and Sinhalese, who violated human rights should be held accountable.