Taxonomy

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 - 23:12

The Antis: anti-imperialist or anti-feminist?

A leftwing analysis that blames the suffering of women in Muslim-majority countries on the feminist movement - variously identified as "white feminists", "liberal feminists", or "colonial feminists" and their "native informants" or "comprador intellectuals in the South" - has become influential in US academic feminist circles. While its proponents call themselves "anti-imperialist feminists", in the interests of brevity I will call them simply the Antis, in tribute to the anti-suffrage leftists who considered women's rights a bourgeois distraction from socialist revolution.
 
A recent article by Deepa Kumar titled "Imperialist feminism and liberalism" argues that US liberals and feminists supported the invasion of Afghanistan and ignored the victims of the war in Iraq because of their "ubiquitous, taken-for-granted ideological framework that has been developed over two centuries in the West...based on the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of empire".
 

What evidence does Kumar present for this thesis? What historical documentation?  A CNN interview with Reza Azlan, an article from the Washington Post about a UAE woman pilot, an Amnesty International campaign on Afghanistan, and an ad for the HBO drama series Homeland.  These are hardly feminist sources.  In an article about American feminism, her only American feminist reference is to a 1991 piece on women and the military by Naomi Wolf.  If Kumar knew more about the US women's movement, she would know that, far from being a mainstream liberal feminist, Naomi Wolf has for years been concentrating on conspiracy theories about a US descent into fascism.  
The Antis misrepresent feminist movements, ignore the struggles of women against politicized  religion in Muslim-majority countries, and have a reductionist analysis of women's liberation. Kumar , for instance, claims that "Liberals and feminists in the US, going against the wishes of Afghan feminist organizations such as RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) who opposed US intervention, linked arms with the Bush administration and supported the Afghan war". 
 
Photo: malalaijoya.com
 
This argument treats US feminists as a monolithic bloc and obscures the range of political opinion in the Afghan women's movement.  A closer look shows a more complex picture.  In 2009, for instance, at the same time that Malalai Joya and RAWA were denouncing the occupation, human rights activist Wasma Frogh and Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a substantial network of NGOs that work on violence against women, were calling for a continued commitment of coalition forces. And in the early years of the war,  RAWA did not oppose US intervention against the Taliban.  It opposed US support for the Northern Alliance, which is not the same thing. 
 
Throughout the nineties, the Clinton Administration tried to win Taliban support for an oil pipeline bypassing Russia and Iran; administration officials held a number of meetings with the Taliban and toured a dozen Taliban leaders around the country.  Opposing US diplomatic recognition for the Taliban, RAWA and the Feminist Majority, an American liberal group, worked together on a campaign about gender apartheid in Afghanistan, hosting celebrity events to raise money for girls' schools and calling for emergency aid to Afghan women.  RAWA was the Afghan face of this campaign, which was also promoted by Eve Ensler.  Because of its visibility in the West, RAWA became the go-to group for journalists, but when the war began, they made contact with other women's groups as well.  In 2002, the Feminist Majority bought Ms. Magazine and did a section on Afghan women, spotlighting Dr. Sima Samar, founder of the Independent Human Rights Commission.  RAWA objected strenuously, denouncing Samar and other Afghan women's groups as conciliators with fundamentalism. That is why RAWA and the Feminist Majority split, not because RAWA opposed the war.
 
It is also disingenuous to say that US goals in the war had anything to do with women; Ann Jones and others have documented the hypocrisy in this claim. Bush wanted to destroy al Qaeda, punish the Taliban for giving it shelter, and protect US oil interests. Nobody in the administration even mentioned Afghan women until six weeks after 9/11. Then, as it became clear the war was not going to end quickly, the State Department released a report on the oppression of Afghan women and children, and Laura Bush - hardly a feminist - gave a radio speech on the subject.  While some American feminists jumped on the bandwagon, many others saw this as a cynical use of women for propaganda purposes.  As Deniz Kandiyoti observes, "far from inspiring an unqualified response of international feminist solidarity, the US military intervention provoked a spate of critical reactions triggered by the naked instrumentalism behind the invocation of abused Afghan women."
 
In the wave of nationalist feeling that followed 9/11, many dissenters were feminists.  The Village Voice even did a piece on feminist opposition to the war, quoting a petition signed by Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker and others saying, "We will not support the bombing or U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for it would only punish suffering people and increase the hatred on which terrorists feed."  A number of antiwar articles by American and international feminists can still be found on the website of Women's WORLD, including Barbara Kingsolver, Rosalind Petchesky, Anne Walker, Muna Hamzeh, the late Sunila Abeysekera, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ritu Menon, Nafisa Hoobdhoy, Ellen Willis, and myself, along with an online symposium about how to strengthen antiwar voices.
 
Photo: Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
 
Though Kumar's subject is feminism and empire, she ignores the struggles of feminist movements in Muslim-majority countries, where empire and government are often closely aligned, and talks only of representations of Muslim women in Northern media.  But the best stories don't get into the Northern media.  A war has been going on for months in the Kurdish enclave of Rojava, where PKK women soldiers have been leading the battle against ISIS slave traders; Northern media have delighted in pictures of these women but said little about the political ideas that animate them.  But Kurdish secularists fighting Islamists don't fit into Kumar's paradigm; nor do struggles on the ground against the use of politicized religion as a tool of oppression and social control, documented in various regions by feminists including Karima Bennoune, Michelle Goldberg, Rohini Hensman, Frances Kissling, Gita Sahgal, Amrit Wilson, Afiya Zia, and many others.  For the Antis, the only struggle that counts is the one against imperial imagery.  As I observed in Double Bind, this myopia can be seen in several sectors of the left and peace movement, who have no problem allying themselves with any tendency they see as anti-imperialist regardless of its political agenda. 
 
Saadia Toor, another Anti and the author of The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan, goes so far as to characterise feminists as front women for US imperialism.  "As the United States draws down its troops in Afghanistan...we have begun to see this ‘imperialist feminism’ emerge once again from a variety of constituencies both within the United States and internationally. One such constituency locates itself on the left-liberal spectrum in the United States and consists of an alliance between self-defined left-wing feminists in the United States and feminists from the Global South (specifically Muslim countries such as Algeria and Pakistan)."  
 
No distinction is made between the Muslim religion and Islamism as a political project or between different shades of liberals and the left, and the threat of Islamophobia is invoked to shut down any discussion of the Muslim right.  To Toor, the continued vitality of "the meme of the Muslim woman who must be saved from Islam and Muslim men - through the intervention of a benevolent western state" points to "a palpable dis-ease with Islam within the liberal mainstream and portions of the Left, a result of the long exposure to Orientalist and Islamophobic discourses."  In fact, the "twin evils" of "capitalism and imperialism" are "at the heart of the problems faced by the vast majority of women across the world, and especially in ‘Muslim’ countries". 
 
This argument is becoming very tired. Indeed, feminists on the left have been arguing over such reductionism at least since 1848.  Is it true, as Toor says, that the problems of women can be reduced to side effects of "capitalism and imperialism"?  Or are there problems predating capitalism involving the family, cultural traditions, religious institutions, and systematic institutionalized sexism?  I always thought feminists believed in the second proposition, or at least recognized the existence of diverse patriarchal formations. 
 
Not these "anti-imperial feminists". For them the only battle worth talking about is the one between US imperialism and the working class. No need to focus on secondary issues like Islamism because, as Kumar says in an article on Hamas, "The class basis of Islamism is the middle class or the petty bourgeoisie. In general, this class does not have the social weight necessary to bring the system to a standstill or force concessions from powerful groups."  So much for the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat. 
 
Besides, she continues in International Socialist Review, Islamists are sometimes anti-imperialist and at those times should be supported, even if their attitude towards women is not what one might wish. This approach fits right in with the SWP's history in the Stop the War Coalition, where women's rights were called "a shibboleth" that should not impede unity with Islamist groups.  But such alliances may not always be productive, Kumar warns: "Islamist groups are self-serving entities that are not principled anti-imperialists. We should therefore not make the opposite mistake of offering support to all Islamists at all times."  
 
Rather than worry about Islamists, the Antis direct their fire at liberal feminists - whom they do not take great pains to distinguish from any other kind. But it is one thing for Deepa Kumar and Saadia Toor to attack "imperial feminism" in Socialist Worker, where few will read them but other TrotskyistsIt is another to make such attacks in Pakistan, where, as women's rights activist Afiya Zia says, "Their attempts to malign liberal and secular feminists and human rights activists as supporters of war, drones, and military intervention end up confirming right wing accusations of the same. While they clearly wish to offer themselves as the true 'radical' opponents of imperialism, in fact they offer no political resistance at all, simply empty talk that depends on delegitimising what little resistance there is in the country to Islamists and conservative politics". 
 
Since the nineties, feminists in many parts of the world have warned of the growing strength of fundamentalist movements - Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Orthodox and Buddhist as well as Muslim. We have warned that these movements were a threat to human rights and world peace comparable to that of fascism in the thirties. In Weimar Germany, the left was too sectarian to unite against the Nazis until it was too late. Today as then, an energetic defense of individual human rights - that cornerstone of liberalism - is essential to any workable leftwing strategy. That means we must fight both empire and fundamentalism. By focusing their attack exclusively on liberal feminism, the Antis demonstrate that they have learned nothing from history.

 

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Friday, September 26, 2014 - 22:49

A Fresh Look: Towards an Israel-Palestine Two-state Solution
 
published in openDemocracy 5050 Sept. 22, 2014
 
With the ceasefire in Gaza and a projected unity government in Palestine, the spectre of a two state solution has again risen to haunt Netanuyahu.  He has responded by announcing the annexation of nearly 1000 more acres of Palestinian territory for settlements.  Meanwhile, a new post-war poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) shows that 79% of Palestinians think Israel lost the war and 72% favor an armed intifada in the West Bank.  That is a big change from a poll taken in Gaza June 15-17, when 73% said they favored non-violent resistance, though, as PSR  points out, Palestinian poll numbers always swing widely after a war: these changes might be temporary. 
 
The Gaza war has thus made it more urgent than ever to get serious about Palestinian nation-building.  As Israeli elder statesman Uri Avnery has pointed out many times, a secure, well-run, democratic state in Palestine is the key to progress and economic development for the region; it is also the only possible way either side can be secure. 
 
Recently, however, prominent Jewish liberals like Anthony Lerman and Jonathan Freedland have begun to say that a two state solution has become impossible because the growth of Israeli settlements have created an irreversible situation.  To Avnery, this idea is nonsense: "I can think of a dozen different ways to solve the settlement problem, from forcible removal to exchange of territories to Palestinian citizenship (meaning the settlers will become Palestinan citizens).... All the Herculean problems of the conflict can be resolved—if there is a will. It’s the will that is the real problem."
 
The majority of people in both Israel and Palestine are still convinced that two states are needed.  75% of Palestinians in the new PSR poll reject a one state approach.  Within the region, right wing Israeli politicians are the main ones talking about one state—and they certainly don't mean a state in which all citizens would be equal.  But the problem of political will is real.  Israeli society has succumbed to the despairing worldview of the Likud, which sees any talk of peace as either fantasy or treachery.  As David Grossman says, "the right has not only vanquished the left: It has vanquished Israel.... In the area most critical to its survival, today’s Israel is practically immobile, one might even say incompetent....(There is) a void of actions, a void of consciousness, a void in which an efficient suspension of moral judgment prevails, a failure to notice the injustice at the root of the entire situation."  
 
At this crux, people who still believe in a two state solution have got to get smarter and tougher, particularly in the US, where groups that support this goal have tended to be timid and overly focused on Beltway politics, hoping that, if they play nice, they will be accepted by conservative Jewish institutions.  This approach hasn't worked.
 
In fact, the only dynamic anti-occupation groups in the US are those that support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions ( BDS) - but they do not have a two state perspective.  The goals of the BDS movement are to end the occupation and dismantle the separation wall; give full equality to the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as guaranteed by UN Resolution 194.  The last demand, for the right of return, is usually understood to mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. As Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein have both observed, this demand will limit the base of BDS support to college campuses and the left, making impossible the kind of broad-based movement needed to change US policy.
 
The US is Israel's chief enabler.  Congress, more focused on donors than on votes, is totally one-sided on this issue.  The Republicans, led by their Christian Zionist wing, can be relied on to push for war in the Middle East, hoping it will lead to the rapture, while even the most progressive Democrats, like Bernie Sanders, stand up for Israel right or wrong—Hillary Clinton now seems poised to make doing so central to her campaign strategy.  The Obama administration has been more reserved in its support than Congress, even holding up a shipment of Hellfire missiles in August because of the Gaza war.  But all are basically responding to a strong public identification with Israel.
 
On Aug. 28, 2014, after seven weeks of a war in which Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians received much more coverage than usual, 66% of those polled by the Pew Research Center sympathized with Israel. A broad coalition against the occupation needs to be able to reach the many Democrats who are "liberal on everything but Israel;" this requires much more energetic organizing for a two state solution.
 
Two main obstacles stand in the way of this solution.
 
The first is the religious-nationalist right on both sides—Hamas and the Likud coalition.  They have a symbiotic relationship: Israel's destruction of Gaza has enormously increased the popularity of Hamas, while the rockets of Hamas have strengthened the Israeli right.  And both have historically opposed a two-state solution, though on Sept. 5, according to the Lebanese weekly Al-Akhbar, Khaled Meshal, head of the political wing of  Hamas, agreed to accept two states within the 1967 borders.  Netanyahu, on the other hand, is more intransigent than ever, as he said in a speech last month: “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”  
 
But Palestinian support for Hamas is not written in stone.  Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and, if it ever actually becomes part of the government of a Palestinian state, is likely to have the same problems reconciling its ideology with the need to govern as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia.  The youth of Gaza in particular have found Hamas politically incapable and far too repressive; they want peace, freedom and development, not a theocracy. Nor does Islamism mesh well with the secular ideals of the Palestinian National Charter, written in 1963 and amended in 1968, which calls for setting up a nation founded on "freedom of worship and of visit (to Jerusalem) to all, without discrimination of race, color, language, or religion." 
 
Like Hamas, the Israeli right is an obstacle to a two state solution, as shown by its practice for the last twenty years.  It includes the religious fundamentalists of the National Religious Right, who think God gave them the right to all the land "from the river to the sea," and the ethnic nationalists of the Likud coalition.  Some, like Netanyahu, are traditional maximalist militarists; others are open racists and advocates of ethnic cleansing, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin.  Of the five parties in the current governing coalition, all except Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah are relentlessly opposed to giving up land occupied by settlements, sharing Jerusalem, or doing anything else that could bring about an independent Palestinian state. They do not conceal their views; Feiglin wrote a recent op ed proposing total war on the civilian population of Gaza, to be followed by ethnic cleansing:
 
"After the IDF completes the 'softening' of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations....The enemy population that is innocent of wrong-doing and separated itself from the armed terrorists will be treated in accordance with international law and will be allowed to leave.... Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews."
 
The second obstacle to a two state solution is a lack of concrete progress towards a Palestinian state.  Unless nation-building begins soon, the whole idea will seem like a hopeless fantasy.  
 
While the new coalition between Fatah and Hamas is a step in the right direction, it is a far cry from a democratically elected government based on the rule of law. Palestine needs a functioning economy, an updated secular constitution, political parties, transparent elections, and a strong civil society.  It also needs better leadership than it has at present— which is why freeing Marwan Barghouti must be a key international demand.  Nation-building will require capable honest leaders who are younger and less compromised than Mahmoud Abbas and are not militaristic theocrats like the leaders of Hamas.
 
The parameters of a two state solution have been clear for many years: a return to the 1967 borders with just and mutually agreed upon solutions to the refugee problem and the question of Jerusalem.  The details can only be settled by real peace negotiations leading to a settlement, not just by temporary breaks in a permanent state of war.  The urgent task of the anti-occupation movement is to build enough international pressure to force such a settlement. 
 
A concrete programme is needed to flesh out this strategy, including targeting settlement funders and a campaign to free Marwan Barghouti.  For this programmatic discussion, see my article "Ten Points Towards Two States" in Dissent. 

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - 16:03

Ten Points Towards a Two-State Solution
 
published in Dissent, Sept. 16, 2014
 
According to most scorekeepers, the Gaza war boosted the popularity and prestige of Hamas and was a disaster for Israel; now, in his usual response to the threat of peace, Netanyahu has announced the seizure of nearly one thousand more acres of Palestinian territory for settlements. If Israel continues on the path it has been on for the last twenty years, its future will be continual war and international isolation in a region that is increasingly unstable and where ISIS and other extremists are far more violent than Hamas. Gaza shows that, far from being impossible, a secure, well-run Palestinian state is more essential than ever, for the sake of justice and for the security of both sides.
 
Liberals like Anthony Lerman (in the Times) and Jonathan Freedland (in the New York Review of Books) have begun to say that a two-state solution has become impossible, citing the Israeli settlements that have eaten up so much of the West Bank. But the majority of people in both Israel and Palestine are still convinced that two states are needed. 75 percent of Palestinians in a new PSR poll reject a one-state approach. Within the region, right-wing Israeli politicians are the main ones talking about one state—and they certainly don’t mean a state in which all citizens would be equal.
A two-state solution—if we have the will to pursue it—is certainly a far better guarantee of security and economic progress than an endless, unwinnable war. Two main obstacles stand in its way.
 
The first obstacle is the religious-nationalist right on both sides—the Likud coalition and Hamas. They have a symbiotic relationship: Israel’s destruction of Gaza has enormously increased the popularity of Hamas, while the rockets of Hamas have strengthened the Israeli right. And both have historically opposed a two-state solution—though on September 5, according to the Lebanese weekly Al Akhbar, Khaled Meshal, head of the political wing of Hamas, agreed to accept two states within the 1967 borders. On the Israeli side, Netanyahu remains intransigent, as he said in a speech last month: “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”
 
The second obstacle is a lack of concrete progress towards a Palestinian state. A coalition between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas is a step in the direction of statehood, and many believe the real reason behind the Gaza war was Israeli determination to destroy this possibility. But an uneasy marriage between Fatah and Hamas is a far cry from a democratically elected government based on the rule of law. For nation-building to progress, Palestine needs a functioning economy, an updated secular constitution, political parties, transparent elections, and a strong civil society. It also needs stronger leadership than it has at present—which is why freeing Marwan Barghouti is a key demand.
 
In the absence of a forceful diaspora strategy to support two states, the only game in town has been the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign inaugurated by Palestinian civil society groups in 2007. The goals of the BDS movement are to end the occupation and dismantle the separation wall; give full equality to the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as guaranteed by UN Resolution 194. Because the right-of-return demand is usually understood to mean a one-state solution (i.e., the end of Israel as a Jewish state), support for BDS among Jews has been concentrated on the left and among the young, in organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No.
 
A different strategy is needed to mobilize people who believe in a two-state solution: one that focuses on the Israeli right and the settlements and on nation-building in Palestine. The following ten program points are not meant to be exhaustive. The first five are aimed at diaspora Jews (especially in the United States), the second five at Palestinian civil society and its supporters in both the region and the diaspora.
 
1. Dismantle the settlements
 
Israel has a massive housing crisis, but instead of investing in housing stock inside the Green Line (Israel’s 1967 borders), successive Likud governments have built more and more settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—settlements that are illegal under international law. While some settlers are driven by ideology, many are refugees from Russia or the Middle East who live where they do for economic reasons. A recent report by B’Tselem details the incentives offered by the Israeli government: subsidized apartments, cheap loans, a longer school day than in Israel, cheap transportation to schools, tax breaks. Meanwhile many liberal young people are leaving Israel because they cannot find housing and are sick of war.
 
Despite world disapproval of the settlements, the Israeli right has expanded them year after year. The only time the United States played hardball on this issue was under Bush the elder, whose secretary of state James Baker told Israel he would deduct any money spent on the settlements from U.S. aid. Although the U.S. government does not fund the settlements directly, its military aid enables the Israeli government to release funds for other purposes, and U.S. nonprofits that do fund them are tax exempt—a contradiction between tax policy and foreign policy.
 
A real change in settlement policy will not come as long as the Israeli right is in power. But a campaign focused on the settlements would put the issue on the front burner and help reach beyond the 56 percent of American Jews who are currently willing to disband settlements. J Street has just begun an initiative to “Stop the land grab, and set the borders,” though its strategy seems to consist of a petition to President Obama. Years ago some anti-occupation activists also discussed starting an international fund to buy economic settlers out and thus isolate the hardcore ideologues who think they are living in an imaginary country called Judea and Samaria. That idea should be revived.
 
2. Focus on the Israeli right
 
Up until now, Israeli politicians have not personally felt the cost of the occupation. That has to change and it may be starting to. The Palestinian Authority has filed a war crimes complaint with the International Criminal Court. Netanyahu is getting nervous about the ability of Israeli leaders to travel without being arrested. The question of possible arrest has already arisen in the UK, where Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni had to be given diplomatic immunity in order to visit London in May.
 
Such war crimes prosecutions are important—they could also affect Hamas—but why wait for the ICC? How about protesting when visas are given to people who advocate ethnic cleansing and extermination, starting with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin? Demonstrations at U.S. appearances by politicians who want to continue the occupation is another way to increase the cost of such policies to those to advocate them.
 
Attention should also be paid to the right-wing orientation of Birthright. Peter Beinart recently suggested a travel option more likely to bring increased understanding of the situation: a Freedom Summer for American Jews in Palestine. And to counter the endless circuit of speakers from the Israeli right, it is more important than ever to organize U.S. speaking tours for the Israeli peace camp, particularly Israeli-Palestinian groups like the Parents Circle and Combatants for Peace.
 
3. Follow the money
 
The settlements are illegal under international law; therefore, people who fund them are criminals. Attention should be focused on the organizations and individuals involved; in the United States these include Sheldon Adelson, a mega-rich Republican funder and operator of gambling casinos, and Irving Moskowitz, another gambling magnate who started a foundation to buy up East Jerusalem. Another source of funding for settlements is the Jewish National Fund, a registered charity, tax exempt in many countries. Private foundations, also tax exempt, contribute significant funding as well. These tax exemptions should be questioned, since nonprofits are not supposed to fund international crimes. They are also forbidden to fund organizations with links to terrorists; shouldn’t that definition include the “price tag” gangs that attack Palestinians?
 
A New York Times investigation in 2010 highlighted this contradiction in U.S. tax policy: “As the American government seeks to end the four-decade Jewish settlement enterprise and foster a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the American Treasury helps sustain the settlements through tax breaks on donations to support them.” Reporters “identified at least 40 American groups that have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade.”
 
4. Mobilizing is not enough: organize!
 
To be effective, opposition to the occupation cannot be confined to demonstrations and appeals to the president. A strategy of isolating the Israeli right and its enablers will need a tactical repertory that also includes educational work, advocacy, community organizing, and local political pressure, year after year.
 
Certain members of Congress act as if they were elected to represent the Likud. They need to know that their constituents are not all on that page. And internet petitions are not enough to make the point; anti-occupation activists need to develop relationships with public officials and do community work in their own districts. J Street was set up to do this job in Washington but has been weakened by its efforts to be part of the Conference of Presidents and its one-sided support for Israel in the Gaza war. Some former members have formed a new group, If Not Now, which aims to “mobilize American Jews and Jews around the world to end the occupation by withdrawing consent and participation from institutions that uphold it.” But in order to make a real impact, If Not Now will need to do more than commit civil disobedience at the Conference of Presidents. It will need a long-term organizing strategy.
 
5. Oppose anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism
 
Hateful remarks about Arabs or Muslims should be challenged, including remarks made by the late comedian Joan Rivers, who said when asked about children killed in Gaza, “At least the ones who were killed were the ones with very low IQs.” A much sharper ideological struggle needs to take place within the Jewish community against anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, whether it is expressed in such “jokes” or in the openly racist incitement of Pamela Geller. Just as anti-Semitism is bad for the Palestinian struggle, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism is bad for Israel and Jews.
 
6. Free Marwan Barghouti
 
Palestine needs capable and energetic leaders who are younger and less compromised than Mahmoud Abbas and are not militaristic theocrats like the leaders of Hamas. Marwan Barghouti, a leader of both the First and Second Intifadas, called the Nelson Mandela of Palestine by some, has already shown his ability to bring together the PA and Hamas. In a 2012 poll, 60 percent of Palestinians wanted him for President. He got fewer votes than Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas in a new post-war poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, but this change is partly an artifact of the recent war and of the fact that Barghouti has been sitting in an Israel jail since 2002, when he was kidnapped by Israel and tried on five fictitious murder counts. He was on Hamas’s list of prisoners to be exchanged for Gilad Shalit but the Israeli government refused to release him, possibly because he is considered incorruptible as well as competent.
 
As former British Labour MP Martin Linton says, “if peace is ever to come, Israel will have to acknowledge that Barghouti was a political and not a military leader, that he never carried arms and that he always opposed actions targeting Israeli civilians, even while defending the right of Palestinians to resist.” Strong credible leadership is essential to building a nation, and Barghouti’s release should be an international focal point for those who support a two-state solution, as should the release of other imprisoned human rights defenders.
 
7. Build a functioning political system
 
It is good news for a two-state solution that the PA and Hamas will attempt to govern together, but this is not enough. As Palestinian-American business consultant Sam Bahour wrote recently in +972, “Anyone seriously wanting to see Palestinians survive this latest Israeli attack should support the reemergence of a fully operating Palestinian political system, rather than just the replacement of a pair of failed political monopolies with a reconciled but leaderless political duopoly.” The first priority, he suggests, should be a political party law that allows new forces, especially youth, to organize and run for office. It is high time for civil society groups to start drafting such a law, as well as a constitution, so that the issues can begin to be discussed.
 
A recent report by the Palestinian think tank Al Shabaka stresses the importance of involving people on the ground, including Hamas, in all these discussions and in Gaza reconstruction efforts. This was not done after Operation Cast Lead; in fact, at the 2009 international conference to discuss reconstruction, the documents were not even translated into Arabic, and 52 percent of the donor budget was allocated to PA administrative expenses. The Al Shabaka report calls for budgetary transparency and emphasizes recruiting local companies and institutions to the extent possible, “so that reconstruction becomes a national rather than international operation and that Palestinian society receives the bulk of the expected funding.” Transparency in reconstruction must be part of the nation-building process, which should include not only business leaders and political groups but civil society groups, especially youth and women.
 
8. Strengthen civil society
 
A democratic country needs not only an elected government but a vibrant civil society. This is the way people learn how to govern themselves, and why authoritarian politicians from Sisi to Putin are always trying to limit external funding for independent organizations. Before the Oslo Accords of 1993 established the PA as a quasi-government, most international funding was channeled through NGOs, and Palestine developed strong civil society organizations in areas such as agriculture, housing, and education. When the First Intifada began in 1987, these organizations began to mobilize politically as well.
 
But after Oslo, according to Ariane Brunet, who was then in charge of Middle East funding for the Canadian government’s now defunct program Rights and Democracy, Yasser Arafat demanded that all international funding be channeled through the Palestinian Authority because he saw civil society as a threat. To get around Arafat, international donors concentrated on funding Israel-Palestine “partnership projects” or “dialogue funds.” These partnerships did little to sustain and develop Palestinian civil society, and were skewed by the asymmetry between Israeli and Palestinian groups. Since then, most international funding for work in Palestine has been directed to “the peace process,” UNRWA, and human rights groups. While the latter play a crucial role, the old service-providing organizations, which Brunet sees as the building blocks of democracy, have disappeared or been supplanted by religious charities. To make things worse, the European Community gives grants only to organizations that can provide a bank guarantee for 400,000 euros, which is impossible for local groups.
 
Support for local civil society groups, especially secular youth groups, is the best counter to Hamas and other Islamists. Young people in particular need work that can give them hope for the future—especially the youth of Gaza, whose lives have been so hideously impacted by occupation and war. When it becomes possible for Palestinians to live like normal people, most will be concerned with their families and livelihoods, not with wanting to become martyrs.
 
9. Support secular voices
 
The religious fundamentalism of Hamas is not popular among Palestinians, but openly challenging it inside Gaza is extremely risky. This makes online opinion sites and cultural groups vital, not only in Gaza but in the West Bank. Those who want a two-state solution must find more ways to support secular Palestinian journals, websites, music, theater, women’s groups, and arts groups, all of whom have tiny budgets and must raise their own funds.
 
A constitution is also key. All over the region, Islamists are killing people who hold beliefs different from theirs. Palestinian civil society needs to start discussions now about a constitution that ensures separation between religion and the state; otherwise its future citizens may suffer the fate of the secular Iranians who went back to help the revolution and were jailed or killed by Khomeini.
 
10. Oppose anti-Semitism in the anti-occupation movement
 
Just as anti-Arab racism must be fought among Jews, anti-Semitism must be opposed within the anti-occupation movement. U.S. discussion has mainly focused on whether anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are the same thing. They’re not, but anti-Semitism does exist within the anti-occupation movement, reflecting the prevalent discourse in the Middle East and Pakistan, where The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Czarist forgery about a Jewish plot to gain world domination, are routinely referred to as if they were historical fact. Palestinian-American comedian Dean Obeidallah recently called out such views: “to those who want to cheer ‘Death to the Jews,’ use Nazi imagery, or in any other way want to demonize the Jewish people, let me be clear: I don’t want you on our side.”
 
The parameters of a two-state solution have been clear for many years: a return to the 1967 borders with just and mutually agreed-upon solutions to the refugee problem and the question of Jerusalem. But we won’t get there until people who believe in this approach are willing to start forcefully opposing the ideas and methods of both the Israeli and Palestinian right, and do the kind of organizing that can make two states a reality.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014 - 01:38

Gaza: The Jewish Right and the Muslim Right
 
published in openDemocracy5050 on Aug. 4, 2014
 
The Israel-Palestine conflict is the gift that keeps on giving for both the Muslim and Jewish Right; each can use it to justify their militarism and their hatred of the other. 
 
I have written here before about the transnational Muslim Right.  Hamas is part of it, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and its rule in Gaza has been as repressive as one would expect.  If Hamas ever actually becomes part of the government of a Palestinian state, no doubt it will have the same problems reconciling its ideology with the need to govern as the Muslim Brotherhood has had in Egypt and Tunisia.  Its popularity in the Gaza strip had sunk to 20% before the war, according to a 2013 poll.  Now the Israeli offensive has brought its numbers up again. But will it be able to stay in power without bringing home something to make up for all the destruction?
 
The Israeli Right (supported by a transnational Jewish Right and many in the middle) has been in power for most of the last eighteen years, except for a two year centrist interregnum under Ehud Barak.  It includes the religious fundamentalists of the National Religious Right, who think God gave them the right to all the land 'from the river to the sea', and the ethnic nationalists of the Likud coalition who want as much land as they can get, with or without God's involvement.  Some, like Netanyahu, are traditional maximalist militarist Zionists; others are outright fascists who advocate ethnic cleansing, like foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman or Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin.  There is nothing concealed about their aims; Feiglin wrote a recent op ed proposing the following solution in Gaza:
 
"All the military and infrastructural targets will be attacked with no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’... After the IDF completes the "softening" of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations....The enemy population that is innocent of wrong-doing and separated itself from the armed terrorists will be treated in accordance with international law and will be allowed to leave.... Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews".
 
The Jewish Right says that the people of Gaza elected Hamas and are therefore implicated in its missile attacks on Israeli civilians.  The Muslim Right says that the people of Israel elected Netanyahu and are therefore implicated in Israel's assassinations, carpet bombings, deprivation of water, and slow starvation of Gaza.  But collective punishment is a war crime, no matter who does it.  While Israel's ability to kill civilians is greatly superior to that of Hamas, both sides have their war criminals.  The relationship is symbiotic.  Israel's destruction of Gaza helps keep the Muslim Right in power in Gaza; Hamas's rockets strengthen the hold of the Right in Israel.  
 
For many years diplomats have pursued the solution of 'two states for two peoples', using the pre-1967 borders, with Jerusalem either internationalized or the capital of both states, and 'a just resolution of the refugee question'. This has been the basis of every peace proposal since the 1974 UN Resolution.  The Palestine Liberation Organization made its acceptance of this plan official in the Oslo Accords of 1993, and even Hamas said in 2008 that it would be willing to accept the 1967 boundaries if the Israelis recognized Palestinians' national rights. Israel too gave lip service to the idea of a two state solution for many years, while establishing 'facts on the ground' (Ariel Sharon's term) that would make it impossible.
 
Since 1977, Israel has built settlements on so much contested land that they make a contiguous Palestinian state almost impossible; Israel has also put up a huge separation wall that takes in still more land, built a separate system of roads barred to Palestinians, and treated Palestinians in the West Bank and especially in Gaza as if they were all potential Israeli prisoners rather than an independent people headed towards sovereignty.  Three weeks ago, Netanyahu finally made it explicit that he will never go for a two state solution, as described in the Times of Israel by David Horovitz, one of his supporters:
 
'Amid the current conflict, he elaborated, “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan”.  Not relinquishing security control west of the Jordan, it should be emphasized, means not giving a Palestinian entity full sovereignty there.... That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state'.
Is this, then, the end of the two state solution for which so many have struggled for all these years?  As an American Jew who hates the Occupation and the ideas of the Jewish Right, I demonstrated against the invasion of Lebanon in the eighties, when Americans for Peace Now began to pull together in New York. I spoke up when the Second Intifada began in 2000, and helped arrange speaking tours and events to support the Israeli peace movement.  I was active in the early days of Brit Tzdek v' Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) , a precursor to the two state lobbying group J Street; I have also been supportive of the more leftwing work of Jewish Voice for Peace, since I think a spectrum of progressive viewpoints and pressure groups is needed to reach people in the centre and in Washington.
 
Yet in the back of my mind, something kept bothering me. I could not understand how American Jews, including people in my family, could depart so far from the ethical Judaism I grew up with that they were willing to support Israel right or wrong.  In 2002, I concluded that there are two different Jewish religions. Mine is summed up in the words of Micah 8, that the duty of  a Jew is to 'do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly'.  The other, I wrote then, is a religion of 'death and resurrection: Jewish martyrdom in the Holocaust is redeemed by Jewish resurrection in the state of Israel....Whatever one might say about this second religion, it is certainly not Judaism. Making a god out of a state looks a lot like idolatry. Worshipping the land, to the point where justice and human lives are insignificant next to "facts on the ground" and a dream of Greater Israel—isn't this what the prophets sought to end when they cast down the standing stones'?
 
I had no idea that I was echoing the thoughts of Hannah Arendt, who distinguished between what she called a Jewish homeland, a cultural community in which Jews would form relationships of mutual respect with the Arabs who already lived in Palestine, and a Jewish state, which would be focused on exclusive control of territory.  During the 1948 war that created the state of Israel, Arendt wrote in 'The Jewish Homeland' that this was not what she had in mind:
 
"The land that would come into being would be something quite other than the dream of world Jewry, Zionist and non-Zionist. The ‘victorious’ Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded into ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities. The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people; social experiments would have to be discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would center around military strategy….Under such circumstances… the Palestinian Jews would degenerate into one of those small warrior tribes about whose possibilities and importance history has amply informed us since the days of Sparta. Their relations with world Jewry would become problematical, since their defense interests might clash at any moment with those of other countries where large number of Jews lived". 
 
After Oslo, many of us believed Israel had finally seen the necessity to give land for peace.  But in the years that followed, the settler 'facts on the ground' and the harshness of the Occupation sparked the Second Intifada, which led to the election of Hamas in Gaza in 2007, when people got fed with the corruption of Palestinian Authority leaders.  They did not realize that Israeli would retaliate with Operation Cast Lead, then try to starve them to death, making Gaza what Noam Chomsky has called 'the world's largest open air prison'.  And now, this war.
 
Enough experts on the subject—including Peter Beinart, Noura Erakat, Rashid Khalidi, and Henry Siegman—have analyzed the causes and events of this war to make it unnecessary for me to do so. Will the mass civilian deaths, destruction of infrastructure and housing, bombing of  UN schools and children's playgrounds, render further Palestinian resistance impossible?  The US wrote the playbook for 'bombing Gaza back into the stone age' in the Vietnam War, and we all know how that turned out. But if Israeli leaders were good at thinking far ahead, they would not have supported Hamas as a counterweight to Arafat in the first place. 
 
Clearly the answer will not come from politicians, whether they are in Cairo or Ramallah, Tel Aviv or Washington. The current crisis has made clear the need for new voices and analyses that go beyond not only the Jewish or Muslim Right but of received political wisdom in general.

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Monday, June 23, 2014 - 13:40
This was first published on openDemocracy5050 June 23, 2014
 
What should be the relationship between religion and human rights?  Larry Cox, formerly of Amnesty USA, says the two belong together. "Human rights and religion need each other".
 
I am reminded of the old feminist one liner, a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.
 
Cox argues that, without religion, human rights professionals are just talking to each other; they need to reach out to the popular classes, who are religious, as well as work in coalition with progressive religious groups and connect with the "inherent religious dimensions of their own ideas."  But why does one have to believe that human rights are inherently religious in order to work on campaigns with religious groups?  As Michael Bochenek says, "these partnerships hardly require a debate on the religious foundations of the rights movement in order to be effective".
 
The discussion emerges from legitimate concerns: a feeling that human rights work is too professionalised, lawyerish, and divorced from popular movements. But the way Cox has framed the questions obscures the critical point that every faith has its right and left wing.
 
There is a Catholic Right, Jewish Right, Protestant Right, Hindu Right, Muslim Right and a rapidly growing Buddhist Right—all tending towards virulent nationalism, ethnic cleansing, and fundamentalism.  Despite positive examples like Shirin Ebadi and Rev. William Barber, in the last twenty-five years, the political thrust of religion has been overwhelmingly to the right. A quick scan of recent headlines is makes the point:
 
Bloody Toll: Boko Haram behind deadliest killing spree since 9/11
Sri Lanka Buddhist mob attacks Colombo mosque
Is There a Christian Nationalist Majority in America?
Radical pyromania: How the religious right and the Haredim are setting Israel aflame
India Weed Out Christianity, says Hindu BJP nationalist leader
 
The question of the day is not how to get human rights professionals to reach out to regular folks, but how to counter the power of religious fanatics, strengthen civil society, and encourage free discussion rather than mob rule. 
 
The issue of secular space is central here.  I use the term secular space rather than secularism because so many people wrongly equate secularism with atheism.  Atheism, like a lot of other isms, describes a belief system.  Secularism describes a political system in which religion and the state are kept separate, for the protection of both.  Note that this is different from the state atheism practiced in the USSR, China, and some other countries.  Countries with policies of state atheism do not just separate religion from government; they try to crush it.  
 
Separation of religion and the state does not dispose of all social problems.  In countries with a secular state, you can still find racism, sexism, gender prejudice, authoritarianism, economic want, cruelty to children, corruption, and discrimination.  But it is impossible for the state to say these flaws are dictated by religious doctrine or that one group of people is privileged because God likes them better than the rest.  Thus separation between religion and the state creates some of the preconditions for a level playing field.
 
This is in theory; in practice no state is completely secular, whether in the North or South.  As Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen point out, states tend to skew in the religious direction of their founding population.  In the supposedly secular US, this means Christian: 
 
"U.S. politics, when secular, represents a hegemonically Protestant version of secularism. This hegemony means that when different actors are brought into the mainstream of U.S. public discourse, the connecting points tend to be those that emphasize similarity to the dominant Protestant heritage..... Moreover, it is the alliance between Christian influence and conservative secular politics that has empowered the participants in this coalition over the past several decades. To focus on either religious or secular influences alone would be to miss the relational dynamics that have promoted conservative power".  
 
Every country has its own approach to secularism.  In Lebanon, it is seen as the way to have checks and balances between different faith communities; this has resulted in 18 different systems of personal law governing marriage, divorce, and child custody.  Germany guarantees freedom of religion but people are born into a faith and have to pay a Church Tax unless they opt out.  The UK has an official majority faith in which hardly anyone participates, but religion looms large in relation to minorities, where the state's tendency to pick fundamentalist advisors has led to such violations of human rights as sex-segregated seating in university meetings and Law Society instructions on how to draw up sharia compliant wills.
 
In Quebec, the furor over "values" that arose when the Parti Quebecois attempted to pass a secular values charter in 2013 (and lost the election partly as a result), shows how far the question is from being resolved—and how self-described secularists may also practice discrimination: the discussion focused on religious symbols and, while the PQ said the Jewish kippeh, Muslim hijab, and Sikh turban could not be worn by public servants, they saw no problem in having a crucifix hanging in the National Assembly.
 
The same tropism towards Christianity can be seen even in ultra-secular France, as Aurelien Mondon notes, comparing government indifference to protests by the Muslim Right against the 2011 burqa law to government capitulation to the Catholic Right, when it turned out thousands to protest legalization of same-sex marriage.  To paraphrase Orwell, all religions are equal but some are more equal than others.
 
The Indian version of secularism is also showing signs of strain; in the past, it has "signified the peaceful co‑existence of religious communities and a creative interaction between various traditions...[not] state atheism, or an active opposition to religion, or even a ban on the public display of religious sentiment (as long as this was non‑ aggressive)".  This version of secularism has been increasingly under attack and is now threatened more than ever by the election of Hindu fundamentalist Narendra Modi.
 
Separation between religion and the state—secular space—is critical to women's human rights. As feminists like Gita Sahgal, Pragna Patel, and Karima Bennoune argue in The Struggle for Secularism in Europe and North America (2011), edited by Marieme Helie-Lucas, any approach to multi-cultural harmony that capitulates to organized religion is a threat to the rights of women and sexual minorities. The participation of women in society is dependent on their being defined not as members of an ethnic or religious group but as individual citizens, with rights equal to those of every other citizen, including their fathers and husbands.
 
Secular space is a necessary condition for freedom of thought and expression; only if state politics are kept clear of religion can people of different belief systems talk without anyone being jailed for blasphemy.  Secular space protects both religious and non-religious people, as well as minority faiths.  It is also the only way to ensure freedom of scientific investigation, which has been threatened by fundamentalists from the Taliban, who oppose vaccination, to Christian fundamentalists, who oppose stem cell research.  No suprise that fundamentalists also think global warming is just a theory.
 
The threat of fundamentalism is far broader than military drives and terrorist attacks by groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.  Examples are everywhere: Uganda and Kenya's new laws against homosexuality; Putin's alliance with Orthodox church in Russia; the leading role of  fundamentalist settlers and their backers in denying Palestinians their rights; the never-ending struggle for abortion rights in the US; Buddhist persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka; and the enthusiastic use of blasphemy trials to silence free thought in Pakistan and Egypt.  
 
In her dazzling article, "Why I Am Not a Postsecularist"" Australian sociologist Melinda Cooper discusses similarities between today's fundamentalist movements and the fascist movements of the 1930s:
 
"It is remarkable, in fact, how closely the paranoid taxonomies of Hindu Nationalism or Salafi Islamism reproduce the discourse of European fascism in the mid-twentieth century, or for that matter the American religious right of today, both of which obsessively rehearse the cultural failures of 'Western secular liberalism'. The civilizational taxonomies of post-secular theory not only misrepresent the historical complexity of relations between religion and the state, they also seriously misunderstand the transnational organization of political religion today".
 
Which brings us back to the original question, the relationship of religion and human rights.  Because secular space is a necessary basis for protection of religious and sexual minorities, freedom of thought and expression, and women's rights—and might even be central to the survival of the planet—it cannot be compromised by ideas like "human rights and religion need each other."  Separation between religion and the state may not yet be part of the official human rights framework, but it must in time become so.

 

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 01:02

Rashid Rehman: Chronicle of a Death Foretold
 
On April 9, Rashid Rehman, director of the Multan office of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), appeared in Multan Central Jail on behalf of Junaid Hafeez, an adjunct teacher at the local university who was falsely accused of blasphemy.  The trial was held inside the jail because of the risk that Hafeez would be killed if it were held in a building open to the public. 
 
Rehman moved that the case be dismissed as fabricated.   As he stood before the judge, two prosecution lawyers and an unidentified third party approached and said that, if he did not drop the case, "You will not come to court next time because you will not exist any more."  Rehman called the judge's attention to the threat but the judge did nothing.  The next day Rehman and the HRCP appealed for police protection but the police did nothing.  In a BBC interview the next week, Rehman said that defending someone accused of blasphemy was like walking into the jaws of death. 
 
“There is fanaticism and intolerance in society, and such people never consider whether their accusation is right or wrong,” he said. “People kill for 50 rupees. So why should anyone hesitate to kill in a blasphemy case?”
 
On May 7, as Rehman was conferring in his office with a colleague and a client, two gunmen burst in.  They shot all three.  Rehman died instantly; the others are still hospitalized. 
 
These crimes were committed to preserve rule by mob, for if people accused of blasphemy cannot get legal representation, a fair trial is impossible, and the only justice is vigilante justice.  Thus Pakistan's extremist religious parties—including the ruling party, Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League—will do almost anything to preserve the blasphemy laws. 
 
British colonial laws against "offense" are common throughout South Asia, and are often used to silence any criticism of religion, but in Pakistan blasphemy laws were expanded and codified during the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), who used Saudi legal advisors for his "Islamization" campaign. Shemeem Abbas describes the process in Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws: From Islamic Empires to the Taliban
 
"In Pakistan the sharia discourse started with Zia-ul-Haq.  During the so-called Islamization of the laws, he apointed judges to the Shariat Court who would implement a very limited, orthodox version of the sharia, a construct foreign to the society at the time.....To this Zia-ul-Haq added the deadly Hudood ordinances against women....Pakistan's sharia laws under Zia-ul-Haq were intended to legitimize military rule in Islam's name, silence opposition, and repress freedom of speeh.  General Zia-ul-Haq became the Amir-ul Momineen (leader of the faithful) to lead the CIA-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.  And thus Pakistan, which had been a secular state, moved toward a theocracy..."
 
One of the problems with Pakistan's blasphemy laws is there is no evidentiary standard and penalties are extremely harsh.  Blasphemy is not defined and there is not even the need to prove intent in accusations of insulting the Prophet.  An accuser can assert that someone has blasphemed without being required to produce any documentation; and if the accusation is false, the accuser is not penalized, no matter what has happened to his victim in the meantime.  The laws can thus be used not only to stifle freedom of thought but to bring accusations that,  according to the 2013 HRCP Annual Report, are "motivated by economic considerations and personal vendetta."  The blasphemy  laws are also used to persecute members of minority religions, particularly Ahmadi, Shi'ites, and Christians, as in the case of  Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused by a neighbor whose family was in a property dispute with hers. 
 
In a country where religious extremism is so out of control, merely saying the blasphemy law should be reformed can be fatal.  Charges can be laid even against someone as high placed as Pakistan's Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, who was charged with blasphemy in 2013.  Her offense?  Daring to discuss reform of the law on TV.  When Salmaan Taseer, then Governor of Punjab, advocated reform in 2011, he was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri.  Taseer had previously warned about the Talibanization of Punjab by the political party led by Nazir Sharif, who is now Prime Minister.  When Taseer's assassin appeared in court, lawyers threw rose petals on him and the judge that found him guilty had to flee the country.  A popular mosque in Islamabad was built three years ago to honor Qadri.
 
As lawyer Zahir Ali Akbar points out, "One of the arguments put forward by protagonists of blasphemy law is that the presence of law prevents individuals from taking up guns."  The assassination of Rashid Rehman shows how far this argument is from the truth.  In fact, accusations of blasphemy are usually accompanied by mob violence and intimidation.  The case of Rashid Rehman's client, Junaid Hafeez, has been shaped by such violence from the beginning. 
 
A graduate student and adjunct teacher at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, Hafeez was accused of blasphemy in March, 2013 as part of a campaign waged by Jamaat e Islami and its student organization to replace liberals with its own people.   Such blasphemy campaigns are a well-known practice of Jamaat e Islaami, a political party of so-called "moderate Islamists" with a violent history and a vicious student wing.  They first targeted the head of the English department and, when she left the country, went after her teaching assistant, Junaid Hafeez, who particularly offended them because, according to a friend's blog, he was "very keen about appreciating the concept and values of democracy, feminism, liberty, pluralism, humanism and freedom of expression."  Hafeez was also interested in theatre and did his MPhil thesis on decoding Pakistani masculinities through the lens of popular films.
 
Needless to say, this sort of thing did not make him popular with conservatives on the faculty.
 
When vacancies for new teachers were announced, and he was the most qualified, they moved against him.  On March 13, Rana Akbar Tabish, an active member of Islami jamea Talba (the student wing of Jamaat), circulated a leaflet saying Junaid Hafeez had made blasphemous remarks on a Facebook page and must be hanged immediately.  Another Islamist organization, Tehreek Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat (TTNR) organized a protest and "demanded immediate arrest and execution of the culprit, hurling a warning to the government that they would be forced to take to roads [i.e. riot] if the action was not taken forthwith."  Without investigating the charges against Hafeez, the Vice-Chancellor immediately terminated his teaching contract and housing allottment, and barred him from campus.
 
Hafeez fled but was soon arrested and charged with blasphemy under penal code 295-C. Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan. He had great difficulty finding a lawyer because the Multan Bar Association said they would expel anyone who took the case.  Only Rashid Rehman was brave enough to do so.  Now he is dead and his client is at great risk of his life. According to a 2010 report in the Pakistani Express-Tribune, between 1990 and 2010, 34 people accused of blasphemy were either killed by mob violence or died in jail under suspicious circumstances.  31 of these deaths occured in Punjab, the province where Hafeez is being held. 
 
One of the charges against him is that he operated two blasphemous websites, “So-Called Liberals of Pakistan” and “Mullah Munafiq”.  Although these charges were made over a year ago, the police have still not investigated the IP addresses to find out who actually owns the domains.  Nor has the prosecution noted that, though Hafeez has been in jail for over a year without access to computers, both websites have gone on as usual.  This failure to investigate supports the statement in the 2013 HRCP Report that "There is considerable evidence that those involved in faith-based violence have penetrated law enforcement agencies."
 
The indomitable HRCP has called for an investigation of police dereliction of duty and prosecution of the lawyers who threatened Rashid Rehman, and the judge who failed to protect him.  But Pakistani activists say that international pressure is necessary to protect Junaid Hafeez and help him regain his freedom.
 
Free expression groups including IDARE, International PEN, the International Cities of Rescue Network (ICORN), and the Scholars at Risk Network have come together in answer to this call and are planning a campaign on behalf of Hafeez.
 
(This blog appeared on March 26, 2014, in http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/meredith-tax/rashid-rehman-chronicle-o...)

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Monday, April 14, 2014 - 23:51
Climate Change and False Gods: Moloch and the Bible Punchers
First published on 50-50, openDemocracy, on April 14, 2014
 
http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/meredith-tax/climate-change-and-false-gods-moloch-and-biblepunchers-in-us
 
In a report released Sunday, April 13, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which won the Nobel Prize in 2007, together with former US vice-president Al Gore, made it clear that, while the future will be sunny, it is anything but bright.  The report, written by an expert committee of 1250, made recommendations for immediate actions to mitigate, if not prevent, climate change. The leading one is to stop using fossil fuels and divert energy investment into renewable sources like wind, water power and solar. The report says we must limit global warming to 2°C by the year 2050; this can be done without wrecking the world economy but we have to move fast—‘we cannot afford to lose another decade’, says Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the expert committee.
 
There is nothing new about this.  As  Elizabeth Kolbert notes in this week’s New Yorker, we have known since the seventies that carbon emissions are the cause of global warming.  The signs of impending disaster are clear. The polar ice caps are melting; the coral reefs are dying; the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb increased carbon emissions.  Heat waves, heavy rains and floods are worse and more frequent.  Species are becoming extinct; fresh water supplies are being used up; the world’s food supply is at risk. But we still keep burning carbon like there was no tomorrow; in fact 'atmospheric carbon dioxide levels [are] rising almost twice as fast in the first decade of this century as they did in the last decades of the 20th century’.
 
The US is not the only country putting the world at risk, but it is the one I know best, and it is an egregious offender which, instead of imposing a carbon tax, subsidizes fossil fuel production with tax incentives worth four billion dollars a year. As if things were not bad enough, now Congress has visions of checkmating Russia by supplying an endless supply of fracked natural gas to Europe, which will of course increase carbon emissions.  Meanwhile the Obama administration is still dithering about whether to green light the Keystone pipeline which, if approved, will carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast refineries.  Climate scientist James Hansen of NASA says that if the pipeline goes through, ‘it will be game over for the climate’. 
 
In short, this is an emergency. Bishop Desmond Tutu has just issued a call to support the global campaign to divest from fossil fuels, and target the US over the pipeline, using similar tactics to the boycott of apartheid South Africa.  As he sees it, ‘We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth’.
 
That is certainly true in American politics, where the power of money has reached an all time high; the disgraceful McCutcheon vs FEC Supreme Court decision will only increase the domination of millionaire donors. The Republicans, in particular, have long been ruled by an alliance between worshippers of Moloch and Bible-punchers. In the 2012 election, the infamous Koch brothers, whose wealth comes from oil, gave Republican candidates $3 million with another $36.6 million coming through their nonprofit foundation, Americans for Prosperity.
 
The Koch Brothers, libertarian believers in free enterprise, are also major funders of climate change disinformation. No surprise that they have also expressed the desire to 'take the unions out at the knees', are major donors to groups attacking women's reproductive rights and gay rights, and of course oppose Obamacare and other efforts to help the poor or extend the social safety net. 
 
One spokesman for the ‘free enterprise’ right is Joseph Bast, director of the Heartland Institute, a leading opponent of the scientific consensus on climate change, also known for combatting the idea that tobacco smoke had anything to do with cancer.  Among the many funders of the Heartland Institute are Phillip Morris and Exxon Mobile, the Walton family of Walmart fame, and various rightwing foundations.  Bast has already blasted the IPCC’s climate change report in Forbes magazine—whose motto is ‘a capitalist tool’—claiming that ‘No changes in precipitation patterns, snow, monsoons, or river flows that might be considered harmful to human well-being or plants or wildlife have been observed that could be attributed to rising CO2 levels’.   
 
I ask myself, what kind of people are willing to risk destroying life on earth just to make money?  Do they think they can survive in their gated communities if the rest of us perish?  Do they plan to relocate to another planet?  A prophet would say they worship false gods—in this case, Moloch, the money god of capitalism described long ago by Allen Ginsberg: ‘Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! ...Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities! Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!’
 
But US worshippers of Moloch are not the only obstruction to action on climate change; Christian fundamentalists are equally fierce in attacking the scientific consensus.  Some of them believe that the degradation of the climate is God’s punishment for sin, which they may define as anything from short skirts to homosexuality.  Others welcome global warming as a sign that the end of the world is coming and they will soon be raptured up to that gated community in the sky.
 
Only in this US is this level of unreason considered sane—in fact, according to the last Pew Research Center poll, one third of the US population believes the world was created exactly as described in Genesis.  Among them is Rep. Paul Broun, a Tea Party Republican from Georgia, who recently said: ‘I've come to understand that all that stuff I was taught about evolution, and embryology, and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.... I don’t believe that the earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says’.
 
It is hard to know what to do about a political system held captive by an alliance of big money and Bible-punchers.  US environmental groups are certainly becoming more activist in response to climate change; in March, 15,000 people turned out and hundreds of students were arrested at the White House in a protest against the Keystone pipeline.  But these are not the kind of numbers needed to save the planet, and most Americans are too busy struggling to make ends meet to have time for politics.  It is impossible to overstate the exhaustion and dis-empowerment of the working and/or middle class (over here, we have never been too clear about the difference). The official unemployment rate is stuck at 6.7%, a gross underestimate since it doesn’t count people who are working part time or have given up looking.  One-third of the workforce is now in contingent employment with no union or job security.  Many people have to work 60 to 80 hours a week, often putting together part time jobs.  Add to this the extra time and energy, mostly female, needed to make up for lack of public services for the elderly, young children, and the disabled, and the hours most Americans spend driving (producing carbon emissions) because of poor public transportation options, and you have a crushing burden of overwork.  Even though the system has lost all credibility, particularly with the young, the ruling elite has no problem keeping the lid on, because people are so hard-pressed and the American left is too weak to present a coherent alternative. 
 
Then there is the abysmal state of US science education—since local school boards determine curricula and standards, the teaching of evolution is likely to be compromised in conservative communities.  A survey of high school biology teachers estimated that only 28% deal with evolution in a robust way that unifies the curriculum.  Another 13% are creationists and roughly 60% want to avoid controversy.
 
Scientists are trying to respond to this problem through the media.  In February, 'Bill Nye the Science Guy', host of a popular kids’ program on public television, accepted an invitation to debate the founder of the Creation Museum of Petersburg, Kentucky, where diorama dinosaurs frolic with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  And now Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV, a profoundly rightwing station whose coverage of climate change was judged 72% misleading by the Union of Concerned Scientists, has jumped on the science bandwagon in collaboration with National Geographic.  They have produced 'Cosmos' a thirteen part series about space hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium.  The series had a huge debut, hitting 220 channels in 181 countries and 45 languages.  While the series will not address climate change or evolution directly, deGrasse Tyson believes that it will have an effect by saying to the audience: “You are equipped and empowered with this cosmic perspective, achieved by the methods and tools of science, applied to the universe. And are you going to be a good shepherd, or a bad shepherd?”
 
But science education, however necessary, is not enough to challenge the power of Moloch and the fundamentalists in Washington.  Bishop Tutu is right; pressure must be applied to the US by the rest of the world.  Corporations and governments who do business here and in Canada should be vocal about fossil fuel subsidies and refuse to work with anyone involved in the Keystone Pipeline.  Diplomats and journalists who engage with the US should become a lot more aggressive about climate concerns.  Countries and NGOs should consider developing the kind of popular education and organizing projects for the American heartland that the US government has used to “build democracy” in other countries. 
 
As the IPCC report says, we have to get moving now for it will soon be too late.  If our various intellectual, cultural and political elites are capable of mobilizing for the Olympics, for a “war on terror,” even to find the black box of a vanished airplane, they have got to be able to get going on climate change.  This crisis supersedes and includes all other questions; it will affect all our movements and constituencies, all our countries and peoples, millions of other species and the earth itself.  What is it going to take to get our governments to deal with it?

 

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Monday, January 27, 2014 - 20:56

Gender-based censorship
In A Room of Her Own Virginia Woolf asked why the literary and intellectual world (overwhelmingly male in 1929) was so cold to works written by women.  She concluded that men need to believe women see them as superior beings in order to justify their control of society; hence evidence of women’s actual views is unwelcome. Silencing of women writers is thus essential to patriarchy.  Recent cases of gender-based censorship, ranging from Taslima Nasrin in India to feminist bloggers in the United States, indicate that Woolf’s analysis still holds.
 
And what is gender-based censorship?  The Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development (Women's WORLD) defined it in The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice, drafted by yours truly in 1995:
 
"Women who write on issues of state politics are silenced by the same means used to silence men in opposition, though, in practice, even these forms of censorship are affected by gender. But gender-based censorship, as we see it, is much broader and more pervasive than this official, organized suppression. It is embedded in a range of social mechanisms that mute women's voices, deny validity to their experience, and exclude them from the political discourse. Its purpose is to obscure the real conditions of women's lives and the inequity of patriarchal gender relations, and prevent women writers from breaking the silence, by targeting women who don't know their place in order to intimidate the rest.”
 
Though much gender-based censorship today is done in the name of religion, its roots are in misogyny and sexual panic.  Take, for instance, the US, where this month’s big story is "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet," by feminist journalist Amanda Hess, who describes herself as a freelance writer reporting on sex, Hollywood, teenagers, and technology, and whose blog is called Sex with Amanda Hess. Among other examples, she notes the blizzard of online rape threats that hit Caroline Criado-Perez when she started a website petitioning the Bank of England to put more women’s faces on banknotes. Hess also notes the lack of action on internet death and rape threats and the assiduous passing of the buck between law enforcement agencies and internet companies. Last year, for instance, US atheist blogger “skepchick” Rebecca Watson found that the reaction of the police when she reported death and rape threats was to say they couldn’t do anything unless someone actually did attack her, “at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.”
 
All this can have a chilling effect on women’s freedom of expression. As Hess relates, “Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.”  Conor Friedersdorf postulates that such “gendered online abuse” may explain why there are so few prominent women bloggers compared to men; in response to a constant stream of threats and invective, many of his women friends “either shuttered their personal blogs and stopped writing for the public, or shifted their journalistic efforts to a traditional format rather than the more personalized blog format.”
 
The internet is an area in which censorship operates differently for men and women, for the interests of women bloggers, who need to feel safe enough to write, conflict with those of internet trolls who want to feel free to abuse women as much as they like.  The feminist movement fought for many years to develop legal protections like the US Violence Against Women Act, which criminalizes phone threats, and recently proposed including online threats.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog group, opposed this idea, citing privacy considerations.  But should privacy trump death threats?  In the age of Snowden, nobody wants to call for more government interference in online communications yet, like freedom of religion, male self-expression must be limited by recognition that women too have rights, and that women’s voices—especially when they take up subjects others do not want to deal with—are central to democracy, equality, and the public good. 
 
The same consideration applies to Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, whose censors have brewed a lethal mix of fundamentalism, political opportunism, and sexual silencing to try to shut her up.  In 1994 Nasrin was driven from Bangladesh by a combination of Islamist fatwa and government indictment for “offending religious feelings.”  The Islamists hated the way she criticized religion and the government hated her because she wrote a book exposing Muslim violence against Hindus, which the Bangladesh National Party government claimed did not exist.  She was put under death threat, went underground, and became one of the Northern media’s first poster girls for Islamist mistreatment of women.  I helped organize a campaign on her behalf at the time and, I wrote in 2002, thought sex was as central to her persecution as religion or politics:
 
"Nasrin did not have to flee Bangladesh merely because she wrote a novel about the persecution of its Hindu minority, or told an Indian reporter the Sharia ... was outdated and should be left behind. Other Bangladeshi writers, male and female, have said such things; some have also been threatened by fundamentalists; but most are still there. Nasrin combined the violation of those taboos with an even more daring transgression: She opened the closet door on a whole world of subterranean sexual experience and feeling, much of it abusive, and none of it considered fit to be discussed. She wrote about sex and religion and state politics all together, and she did it at a bad time, when fundamentalism was on the rise. The combination did her in.”
 
Nasrin eventually settled in Kolkata, where she lived quite happily from 2004 until 2007, when Islamists began protesting her existence again.  What had begun as a movement by poor, largely Muslim farmers against forced industrialization and land seizures in Nandigram got deflected by political manipulation into a riot over Nasrin. The ruling party in West Bengal, at that time the leftwing CPI(M), found it a lot easier to get rid of her than to deal with land issues. When I saw Nasrin the next year in New York, she told me they had shipped her off to Delhi without even giving her time to pack.  In Delhi the federal government essentially kept her under house arrest for months, claiming this was for her own protection while trying to convince her to get out of India. 
 
One might ask why leftwing secularist parties like the CPI(M) and its federal ally, the Congress Party, would collude with Muslim fundamentalists to suppress free speech.  As Nasrin says, it is all about electoral politics. “Who doesn’t want to get Muslim votes? They are 25% of the population.”
 
She stayed away for a few years, then returned to India and, being barred from Kolkata, settled in Delhi, where she resumed work on a projected TV series for a Bengali station. The series, called Doohshahobash, which means something like Difficult Cohabitations, is about a Hindu family of three sisters who confront various kinds of gender oppression. The station ran a huge advertising campaign, plastering Taslima’s face on billboards around Kolkata, and the series was to be broadcast in December. 
 
But suddenly, on December 20th, everything ground to a halt when a coalition of 22 Islamist groups went to the government of West Bengal, now led by the Trinamool Congress party.  Even though they hadn’t seen any of the series, they were so certain it would offend Muslims that they insisted it should be banned; otherwise people might riot.  And, like the CPI(M) before it, the Trinamool Congress caved.  A station spokesperson told The Hindu, Due to external pressure we have deferred the telecast of this serial indefinitely."
 
As Nasrin noted in her blog, this censorship was met by a stunning lack of protest from Kolkata’s literary community.  Garga Chatterjee made a similar point in the Indian weekly Outlook: “Kolkata’s current and the erstwhile rulers, the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M) respectively, seem to be competing with each other in setting a record on muzzling free speech at the instigation of groups in whose worldview free speech has no place. While there may be short-term electoral gain for such posturing, this race to the bottom has no winners.”
 
The silence of Kolkata’s literary lions may have more to do with male sexual solidarity than party politics. Nasrin is not deferential and has always been outspoken on issues of rape, child molestation, and sexual harassment.  The second volume of her memoirs, Dwikhandito, was banned in Kolkata, allegedly because it violated Muslim sentiments, but she told me in 2005 that the real reason was because she named names about sexual harassment and relationships within the literary elite.  She recently accused a well known Delhi intellectual, Sunil Gangopadhyay, of taking advantage of his position to harass young women writers.  Public discussion of this kind of thing is relatively new in India, where a law against workplace sexual harassment was just passed in April 2013, and a young journalist’s story of being assaulted in an elevator by her editor at the muckraking paper Tehelka made headlines in November.
 
A democracy’s commitment to freedom of expression can be measured by how it treats two groups of people: those of such low status that they have no voice, and those who push the limits of acceptable speech. There is no need to protect those who are powerful and those who never offend. Protesting gender-based censorship is part of mobilizing against rape and sexual harassment, for women’s freedom of expression and movement are related, and if either is limited to what does not offend, it will not exist.
 
Public secular space, on the internet and on the streets, in intellectual fora and on TV, is essential to the health of civil society. This space must be as accessible to women and atheists as to men and the pious. That means that men—including Kolkata intellectuals and US bloggers—should defend women’s right to a public voice, and women should be able to speak publicly without fear of violence. And if these women then offend against male amour-propre, hey, as Virginia Woolf said in 1929, that’s part of free speech.
 
(published on openDemocracy 5050   on Jan. 27, 2014)

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - 01:59

An interview with Cathy Albisa of NESRI (National Economic and Social Rights Intiative) for Human Rights Day, 2013.
 

American politicians often talk as if human rights were only relevant in other countries, but grassroots organisations are increasingly using the human rights framework to win social and economic rights for the poorest and most marginalised people in the US. Cathy Albisa, director of the National Economic and Social Rights Inititative, spoke to Meredith Tax

Crowd of people wearing green t-shirts behind a large banner reading 'Farmworker freedom march' Photo: NESRI (National Economic and Social Rights Initiative)
 
Meredith Tax: Looking at the history of human rights in the US, why do you think it has taken progressives so long to use the ideas of human rights for social and economic change?
 
Cathy Albisa: Progressives in the US have used the ideas for centuries, including in the abolitionist movement, but politics intervened after World War II when the formal human rights system was created. With regard to the United States, Carol Anderson spells out this history in her book Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955
 
People in the Civil Rights Movement recognized they needed a human rights strategy to achieve full equality because civil rights alone, without economic and social rights, would be inadequate.  But at the same time, you had forces pushing in the opposite direction.  On the international stage, the world was moving from a time of global unity against fascism to the East-West divisions of the Cold War.  In this environment, human rights became highly politicized, with the USSR claiming economic and social rights and the US claiming political and civil ones.  The cruel irony for people in both parts of the world was that the Soviet Union wasn’t adequately delivering social and economic rights and the US wasn’t actually delivering civil and political rights to a substantial portion of its population.  But within the US, human rights became a political football and anyone who pushed for economic and social rights would be accused of aiding communism and being a traitor.  And the Far Right had a very effective strategy of associating labor and human rights with what they described as the communist threat.
 
This dynamic was evident from the inception of the system.  When the UN was first founded and the Charter was being negotiated in San Francisco, both the NAACP and the American Jewish Congress were there to link domestic issues to international human rights.  The US government suddenly became concerned that they might be held accountable to this vision they were promoting for the rest of the world, and ensured a sovereignty clause in the UN Charter indicating that the system could not interfere in domestic concerns.  Already, the United States saw human rights as a threat domestically.    
 
Nonetheless, US leadership, in the person of Eleanor Roosevelt, was a key driver of the UHDR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  Yet when the NAACP sought to use the international stage to make abuses against African-American visible, she threatened to resign from the US delegation to the UN. Eleanor wanted to keep human rights primarily an international vision to avoid political fallout at home. 
 
MT: But she was being called a communist anyway.
 
CA: Right. She didn’t want to deal with any more attacks. And the backlash was so intense that conservatives almost succeeded in passing an amendment to the constitution, the Bricker Amendment, that would strip the presidency of power to enter and enforce treaties. It was stopped in the Senate in 1954 but it lost by only one vote. Eisenhower basically had to promise not to enter into and enforce any human rights treaties in order to make the threat go away.
 
MT: And their motivation was mostly racism? 
 
CA: I think it was a package; there was both a racial component and an economic one in this toxic opposition to human rights. To give you an idea, Frank E. Holman, who was the head of the American Bar Association, went all over the country claiming Americans had to oppose human rights because they might lead to anti-lynching laws, mixed marriages, and desegregation.  Clearly racism was a huge part of this, but human rights were also attacked as socialist.  So at the moment of the founding of the UN, when the US might actually have embraced human rights within government institutions, the backlash became overwhelming. And because of this, the more mainstream people in the civil rights movement felt that they had to step back or they wouldn’t achieve anything at all.
 
The next visible effort to call for domestic economic and social rights came in the second wave of the civil rights movement with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Poor Peoples' Campaign, and Malcolm's call to place civil rights in the context of international anti-colonial struggles.  But the civil rights movement was being seriously attacked at that time, people were being killed, and the community was so pressed it lost all faith or hope in the notion of American values and rights. Instead people understandably began to say they had to build their own power—that was the Black Power movement.  
 
But the predecessors of the people now pressing for economic and social rights came out of that period. Marian Kramer from Detroit and George Wiley founded the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1966. George died in 1973 but Marion kept working even in periods where nobody else was talking about economics in terms of rights. The conversation was kept alive in the South as well, among African-Americans in particular.  
 
MT: How did the US human rights movement develop after the 70s?
 
CA: First of all, you have to see the domestic human rights movement in the US as separate from the international human rights movement, or what we call the INGOs, International Non-Governmental Organizations.  Though I wasn’t aware of much of a domestic human rights movement here until the early 90s, I have heard that even during the 1980’s there were efforts on the ground.  But in 1989, the end of the Cold War prompted a heightened level of interest, because there was now a space where the ideas of human rights could be detached from international power politics and used for authentic social change. 
 
In the early to mid 90s, new conversations began to develop about how to bring a human rights approach to the US.  The two reasons that were cited—from the perspective of domestic advocates—were that we needed a more genuine definition of discrimination than the narrow legal version that prevails in the US.  We needed a definition of discrimination that took on structural issues. And we needed economic and social rights. Those were the twin arguments I heard over and over again.
 
MT: Who was making these arguments?
 
CA: There were two different types of people at the table in the early 90s. The first were from grassroots groups that had the seeds of a human rights analysis, small ones, welfare rights in particular, in Tennessee, Philadelphia, and West Virginia, and there were the public housing residents in Chicago.  There was also the farm workers’ organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) which formed in 93.  They started in a church with ten farm workers and copies of the UHDR which they read together, and were founded as a human rights organization from the beginning.  They were from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti, and included founder Lucas Benitez and two graduates from Brown who were former legal services paralegals, Greg Asbed and Laura Germino. What they have built in Immokalee with a human rights vision is extraordinary.   
 
The grassroots groups were interested because people were being crushed economically.  When you look at the impact of Clinton's welfare reform, the bottom half of welfare recipients’ lives became far worse.  So the first people I saw walk into the room were the most marginalized communities: welfare moms and farm workers.  Things were so bad in farm work that in the 90s (and up until recently) there were several slavery cases in Florida prosecuted by the federal government, liberating more than 1000 workers and leading to up to 30 year prison terms.
 
In addition to the grassroots activists of the 90s, some lawyers were interested, like Deborah LaBelle in Michigan, who fought to stop rape in women’s prisons through litigation.  And some international advocates were at the table, like Larry Cox, who later became the head of Amnesty USA but was at the Ford Foundation at the time, and Dorothy Thomas, founder of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. They thought the example of a US that wasn’t willing to be accountable to human rights standards even on paper was undermining the legitimacy of human rights worldwide. 
 
So the movement spread from two poles: INGOs way up high and grassroots voices with very tiny organizations and very little money and power.  And somehow this weird mix came together and started a conversation that’s now gone on for 20 years and has catalyzed new organizations and ways of working. Today you see a lot more people talking about economic and social rights partly because more people are feeling harmed—the students, the more traditional labor organizations, the people in Occupy.  The AFL is increasingly using human rights messages and approaches, and claims to want to build an alt labor movement, which looks at labor and community together, not segregating out issues but really trying see to how the web of society works.
 
MT: But the pivotal moment for US economic and social rights was the early 90s.
 
CA: Yes.  And the movement was initially founded by communities that were being squeezed into the darkest shadows of the economy by the pressure of market fundamentalism—which Clinton promoted very strongly and which seeded the housing crisis as well as some of the economic problems we see today.
 
MT: We’ll have to remember that in the next election. And what about the US left?  How does that deal with human rights?
 
CA: The US left obviously has some mixed attitudes towards human rights. Many of the older generation want nothing to do with human rights because it does have a very tainted history and they also think that kind of work can only be reformist. But some of us, and there is a generational difference here, believe that if we take the language literally at its word that it’s inherently transformative. The co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Greg Asbed, and several of his co-workers were given the Roosevelt Award this year, the Freedom from Want award, and in his acceptance speech he mentioned the UDHR.  He told me afterwards, “You know, I was looking at the audience and I could tell that a lot of people hadn’t even heard about it.”  And that was in New York!  He said, “It’s really a shame because if you take this little book seriously as a blueprint for society, it would be completely transformative.” 
 
The UDHR is not only written in beautiful and poetic language, it has the right ideas and it sets a high bar if you take it at its word.  What many people in the US human rights movement want to do is reclaim it and insist that it means what it says and it says what it means.
 
MT: Let’s talk about women and gender in terms of social and economic rights.  
 
CA: I am not a person who privileges one set of rights over another by any stretch - but frankly, this is the set that shape most women’s lives because women are the ones who fill the gaps in a society that doesn’t protect economic and social rights.  Usually it’s at the intersection of gender and race where you see the poorest people in society and it’s women who are the caretakers and have to watch their children go hungry and un-housed.  Which is why it was women on welfare who were among the first to begin this movement.
 
The challenge is that there isn’t much of a women’s movement left in this country at all and, within the other social movements, there’s less of an explicitly feminist perspective than ever.  I think some of that is changing but not through the growth of women’s organizations.  I see it starting to change through more explicitly gendered discussion in non-women-led organizations.
 
Look at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They have made sexual harassment one of the four pillars of their Campaign for Fair Food, which has entered human rights agreements with eleven of the large produce purchasers including Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, to improve wages and working conditions in the tomato fields.  Why sexual harassment? The depth of the problem became very clear when they started enforcing their Fair Foods Code of Conduct, which includes a worker-to-worker education process.  And the women who were getting the education said, “You mean, this isn’t supposed to happen?  You mean, I can do something about this?”  And the complaints started coming in significant numbers and the women started getting more active and the female membership increased.  And now they talk a lot about what women farm workers go through.
 
MT:  Are you saying the CIW was started by men, so they weren’t aware of the issue, and as they tried to recruit women the issue came up?
 
CA: No. The co-founders included women.  But it’s an 80 to 90 percent male work force and the CIW had to deal with a very degraded labor environment for everyone, and gender issues did not rise to the surface for a while.  But here’s where the human rights approach comes in. They always saw themselves as a human rights organization, so when they entered into the agreements, they were committed to looking at the whole system and the full set of rights, and they automatically put in a prohibition on sexual harassment.  What wasn’t clear was that this would end up becoming a signature issue.  But when the enforcement began in 2009, this rose to the top, because for the first time the women in the fields were told, “Yeah, this can’t happen and we will do something about it if you file a complaint.” And many of them did.  And they became far more vocal and far more visible. 
 
The male leadership in the organization is as deeply invested in ending the sexual harassment and abuse as any women's organization I have seen. There is a deep solidarity in the organization.  And you can’t do anti-sexual harassment work only vertically, you have to do it horizontally as well.  So when they developed their public education, they couldn’t just go into the fields and say, “The boss is not allowed to sexually harass the women farm workers.” They had to talk about it more broadly. And they would give examples, “What if this happened to your sister, what if this happened to your mother,” you know, really trying to personalize it.  At the end of the education session they would turn and say, “Well, these are your sisters and your mothers in the field when you are working together.”  
 
It’s been amazing.  And they will acknowledge that this as the hardest work they’re doing.  It’s harder than ending the wage stealing.  It’s harder than ending the violence.  But that’s how gender gets integrated; people push for different kinds of structural changes and then the gender dimensions rise to the top. 
 
MT: How does gender come up in other US domestic human rights work?
 
CA: In the domestic workers' movement, you see a lot of organizing led by women but you don’t see a lot of organizing that necessarily engages in an explicit feminist analysis. 
 
In housing, we’ve done a lot of our work in public housing, which is 80% women.  It’s one of those issues that people don’t talk about it in terms of women - there isn’t a real analysis, though it’s obvious that the predominance of women tenants in public housing has to do with the criminalization of black men and the feminization of poverty. 
 
In our school-to-prison pipeline work there’s definitely a gender perspective because the schools target black males and that’s as important a gender perspective as anything else, though all students are affected. The Dignity in Schools Campaign has become more and more sophisticated at talking about the different nuances and manifestations of abusive discipline in targeting particular children. And now there’s a growing alliance and participation by the LGBTQ community in the campaign. That campaign started out with a classic school-to-prison lens and it has become more nuanced over time, especially around the sexual orientation work. And it is led by women at the parent level.
 
So it’s not that you don’t have movements led by women.  But what we don’t have right now in this country is a lot of grassroots work that talks about the way women are specifically impacted.  And I don’t know what the best solution is to that.  I am really encouraged by what I see at the CIW and what I’d like to see is more integrated work, where gender is an explicit piece of it, rather than necessarily having women isolated.  
 
And you do have groups like the Vermont Workers' Center. The Vermont Workers’ Center is probably—this is a big word I try to avoid in any kind of public discourse—but it’s probably the most intersectional of our partners. They’re an organization that’s mostly white because they’re in Vermont but they have a lot of anti-racism trainings and gender discussions. They’re very conscious on that level.  I also believe their work on healthcare is feminist work, although because of the way women’s issues are defined in this country, healthcare financing somehow doesn’t make the list. Nurses are a disproportionately female profession and they have a close and deep alliance with the nurses’ union in this work. 
 
The Vermont Workers’ Center explicitly supported reproductive rights in the new state single payer system, which commits to publicly and equitably financed healthcare.  But I think we need to rethink what we talk about as women’s issues in this country.  Because when you have a workers’ center coming together to campaign for public financing for health care in deep alliance with the nurses’ organization, I mean, these are women’s issues.  It sometimes boggles the mind why we don’t see them as such. 
 
In this country, women’s issues are defined to exclude anything that affects men as well as women. But that means we are defining women’s issues in relation to men!  Because it’s much rarer for men to be targets of sexual harassment or rape, though it happens, those become women’s issues.  Because men don’t get pregnant, abortion becomes a women’s issue.  But that’s a very strange way to define what a women’s issue is.  Even though most of the parents who work on education programs are women, education is not seen as a women’s issue unless there is some kind of discrimination.
 
MT: I used to do parent organizing and had arguments about whether this was feminist work. I would say, “I’m a feminist, I’m doing it, so it’s feminist work.”  But some of my friends didn’t think a parent-initiated school was feminist work; it had to be something about gender roles.
 
CA: I’ve committed to seeing feminism as a perspective not a piece of work. I think, for example, when you try to raise your children in a democratic household, that’s feminist work, whether you are raising boys or girls. Sexism is predicated on the very notion of hierarchy and I think any time you try to challenge hierarchy and come up with other models of interacting and organizing yourselves socially, it should be seen as feminist work.  Single-payer health insurance, is about creating shared risks—it’s a solidarity insurance system based on public financing, and that’s a feminist vision for the world.
Published first on openDemocracy.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013 - 16:15

[originally published on openDemocracy on Sept. 17]
Whew. It’s over. At least until next time.  At 10:40 PM on Wednesday, Republicans in the US House of Representatives voted to end the shutdown they began so cavalierly on Oct. 1. But not until the world saw the US government screech to a halt and the global economy held hostage by a bunch of irresponsible yahoos who wanted to play chicken with the President, threatening a default on US debts unless he backed down on the Affordable Care Act.
 
Observers from Bill Moyers to Andrew Sullivan to John McCain pointed out that the shutdown was unconstitutional. The Affordable Care Act was passed twice by Congress, signed by a President who had just been re-elected by a substantial majority, and approved by the Supreme Court. That makes it law. Congress is constitutionally obligated to fund laws once they are passed.  
 
But Tea Party Republicans have their own interpretation of the Constitution, and were unmoved by the misery they caused by putting eighty thousand federal employees on furlough, shutting down infant feeding programs, holding up subsistence money to Indian reservations, and closing Head Start and daycare centers.  Damage to US prestige has also been extensive, and there is talk in China of going off the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
 
What caused such a mess?  US liberals and leftists have offered three main explanations of the debacle.
 
Explanation 1: The shutdown was caused by a capitalist cabal of climate-denying, big government-hating, welfare-cutting libertarian oil magnates and international capitalists, led by the Koch Brothers of Wichita, Kansas.  This position was laid out by an investigative report by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mike McIntire in the New York Times, and echoed in a recent openDemocracy interview with Colin Greer.  According to the Times, the shutdown plan was hatched by former Attorney General Edwin Meese and Michael Needham of Heritage for America, the recipient of a half million in Koch Brothers money.  Other groups involved include Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, Freedomworks, and the Club for Growth—all also funded by David and Charles Koch. 
 
And who are the Koch Brothers? Their father, a founder of the John Birch Society, set up oil refineries under Stalin, saw his associates purged, and  became convinced that socialism—which he saw as identical to big government—was the source of all the world’s ills.  His sons David and Charlie are billionaire oilmen, and, according to a 2010 New Yorker profile, “longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.”  The Koch brothers are often cited as an example of the unprecedented power of capital in US politics since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision removed limits on corporate campaign contributions. 
 
Explanation 2: The shutdown was a rational expression of the class interests of the old Southern oligarchy, descendents of slave owners, who are scared by the fact that white men are now a minority and hope to keep control over their local turf and its people by weakening the federal government. This position has been developed by Michael Lind in Salon and Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker.
 
Noting that the shutdown Congressmen come from electoral districts that differ demographically from the rest of the country, Ryan Lizza says, “The members of the suicide caucus live in a different America from the one that most political commentators describe when talking about how the country is transforming. The average suicide caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. Latinos make up an average of nine per cent of suicide-district residents, while the over-all average is seventeen per cent.”  And a majority of them come from Texas and the South, former slave states.
 
The long term economic strategy of the Southern white elite has been to attract investment by holding down wages, crushing labour unions, and skimping on social services to keep taxes low.  They use voter suppression to keep blacks and immigrants from voting, particularly since a June 2013 Supreme Court decision invalidated parts of the Voters Rights Act.  And, says Michael Lind, if these tactics are not enough, their representatives in Congress can try to stop new federal programmes that would help the working poor of the South by “devolving federal programs to the states, privatizing federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, blocking the implementation of new federal entitlements like Obamacare.”
 
Bill Moyers, a Southerner himself, has gone so far as to call the shutdown a second effort at secession: “Like the die-hards of the racist South a century and a half ago, who would destroy the union before giving up their slaves, so would these people burn down the place, sink the ship.... At least, let's name this for what it is: sabotage of the democratic process. Secession by another means.”
 
Explanation 3: The shutdown was caused by Christian fundamentalists who think destroying the US government and economic system will kick off the End Times, from which they will emerge the ultimate winners of history.  This argument has been advanced by a number of people who track the religious right, including Amanda Marcotte, Chris Hedges, and Morgan Guyton of the United Methodist Church.
 
Two of the shutdown’s cheerleaders, Rep. Michelle Bachman of Minnesota and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are associated with a strand of evangelical Christianity called Dominianism.  As defined by Political Research Associates, a US think tank that investigates the Christian right, Dominianism is the theocratic idea that...heterosexual Christian men are called by God to exercise dominion over secular society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” Dominionists believe that the US always was and always should be a Christian nation; that there can be no equality between faiths; and that US civil law should be based on the Bible.
 
Michelle Bachman recently gave an interview in which she accused Obama of arming Al Qaeda in Syria, but said this was really good news because “I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times.”  Fortunately Bachman isn’t running for re-election. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, is aiming for the heights; last week’s Value Voters Summit, a convention of conservatives hosted by the anti-abortion and anti-gay Family Research Council, voted him their pick for president in 2016.  Cruz was educated in Baptist schools and his father, Rafael Cruz, a Cuban exile, is an evangelist with the Purifying Fire Ministry, ministering to the US, Mexico, and Central America. 
 
Both Cruz and Bachman are also associated with the Tea Party.  They represent the US Christian equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who sought political power through elections in order to dismantle the secular state and inaugurate the rule of the pious, meaning them.  The shutdown has demonstrated that Christian fundamentalists are equally willing to destroy democracy in order to save souls.  And, despite their claims, they no more represent most Americans than the Muslim Brotherhood represented most Egyptians. According to a 2010 New York Times/CBS poll, Tea Party members are older, whiter, better educated and richer than the general population.  And while  Cruz may been raised by Texas bible-punchers, he also attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Law Review, just like Obama, and went on to clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
 
So while the Koch Brothers, Southern good ol’ boys, and Christian fundamentalists all bear responsibility for the shutdown, none were its sole movers.  The interesting question is the relationship between them—and their relationship to oil.
 
Oil may be the world’s most valued commodity and source of political clout.  Oil has made Norway a social-democratic icon, Venezuela a South American leader, Saudi Arabia the funder of Islamists all over the world.  But oil, which may have doomed our planet, is itself a doomed, non-renewable source of energy.  As Michael T. Klare, an historian of oil, observed in 2011: 
 
“America’s rise to economic and military supremacy was fueled in no small measure by its control over the world’s supply of oil.  Oil powered the country’s first giant corporations, ensured success in World War II, and underlay the great economic boom of the postwar period.  Even in an era of nuclear weapons, it was the global deployment of oil-powered ships, helicopters, planes, tanks, and missiles that sustained America’s superpower status during and after the Cold War.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the country’s current economic and military decline coincides with the relative decline of oil as a major source of energy.”
 
No wonder the Koch brothers are unhappy. No wonder they fight the idea of climate change with such fury. Their End Time approacheth.  As does that of the Southern oligarchs who ruled for so many years by union-busting, race-baiting and terror.  Few of them run factories or plantations any more; as Michael Lind puts it, they are “the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce...more likely to be millionaires than billionaires, more likely to run low-wage construction or auto supply businesses than multinational corporations. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.”
 
Desperate to hold onto political power, these billionaires and local gentry seek allies who can appear to represent “the people,” and lo! here come the fundamentalists, always good at raising a crowd, and not only in the US.  Hindu supremacists, political Islamists, fanatical West Bank settlers, and Bible punchers of every description have donors among the global rich as well as local elites. The Koch Brothers fund the Tea Party. The Saudis fund madrassas in Africa, South Asia, even Bosnia-Herzogovina, building a power base to project their ideas far into the future.  Needless to say, fundamentalist groups have their own agendas: stop abortion, subordinate women, fight the hereditary enemy (usually the ethnic or religious group next door.)  
 
But this does not worry their patrons, who assume they can rein them in if necessary.
 
But can they?  The Tea Party bolted for 16 days, threatening the world economic system until the Koch Brothers got so nervous they disowned the shutdown.  Sometimes puppet masters have less control than they think. 
 
These are not comforting thoughts.  But it is better to see things as they are than to think you have one enemy when you really have three.

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