Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - 17:05

The Revolution in Rojava
Published first in Dissent, April 22, 2015
Meredith Tax ▪ April 22, 2015
Since last August, when I first heard about the fight against ISIS in Kobani, I have been wondering why so few people in the United States are talking about the Rojava cantons. You’d think it would be big news that there’s a liberated area in the Middle East led by kickass socialist-feminists, where people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of leadership positions at all levels. You’d think it would be even bigger news that their militias are tough enough to beat ISIS. You’d think analyses of what made this victory possible would be all over the left-wing press.
But many on the U.S. left have yet to hear the story of the Rojava cantons—Afrin, Cizîre, and Kobani—in northern Syria, or western Kurdistan. Rojava—the Kurdish word for “west”—consists of three leftist enclaves making up an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, in territory dominated by ISIS. In mid-2012, Assad’s forces largely withdrew from the area, and the battle was left to the Kurdish militias: the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces), the autonomous women’s militias. These militias are not the same as the Iraqi peshmerga, though the U.S. press uses that name for both.
The YPG and YPJ have, for the better part of the last three years, been focused on defeating the jihadis, even as they continue to clash with the Assad regime (particularly in and around the city of Hasakah). On January 27, 2015, they achieved a major victory when they defeated ISIS in Kobane. They have since won the strategic towns of Tel Hamis and Tel Tamr (on the edges of Cizîre canton), but are, as of late April, gearing up for a renewed ISIS attack on the area.
While the Syrian opposition is understandably bitter that the YPG and YPJ withdrew most of their energy from the war with Assad, leftists worldwide should be watching the remarkable efforts being made by Syrian Kurds and their allies to build a liberated area where they can develop their ideas about socialism, democracy, women, and ecology in practice.
They have been working on these ideas since 2003, when the PYD (Democratic Union Party) was founded by Syrian members of Turkey’s banned Kurdish party, the PKK. By January 2014, they had established a bottom-up system of government in each canton, with political decisions made by local councils and social service and legal questions administered by local civil society structures under the umbrella of TEV-DEM (Democratic Society Movement). TEV-DEM includes people from all the ethnic groups in the cantons, who are represented by more than one political party, but most of its ideological leadership comes from the PYD.
According to Janet Biehl, who was part of an academic delegation to the Cizîre canton in December 2014, the district commune is the building block of the whole structure. Each commune has 300 members and two elected co-presidents, one male, one female. Eighteen communes make up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them are on the district people’s council, which also has directly elected members. The district people’s councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils are at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—has also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level. These determine policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Since domestic violence is a continuing problem, they have also set up a system of shelters. If there is conflict on an issue concerning women, the women’s councils are able to overrule the mixed councils.
In short, the Rojava revolution is fulfilling the dreams of Arab Spring—and then some. If its ideas can be sustained and can prevail against ISIS, Kurdish nationalism, and the hostile states surrounding the cantons, Rojava will affect the possibilities available to the whole region. So why isn’t it getting more international support?
In October, David Graeber wrote a Guardian op-ed comparing Rojava’s fight against ISIS to the Spanish Civil War and asking why the international left was so showing so little solidarity this time around. The answer lies partly in how one defines international solidarity—which these days often seems to be limited to opposing whatever the United States does. In December 2014, an In These Times panel on what to do about Kobani framed the question purely in terms of U.S. military intervention. Richard Falk responded:

"The plight of the Kurds in Kobani and their courage in resisting ISIS poses a tragic predicament that does challenge the kind of anti-interventionism that I feel is justified overall, particularly in the Middle East. But to overcome the presumption against military intervention, especially from the air, one needs very powerful evidence. . . . [T]he ISIS intervention doesn’t seem designed to actually deal with the problem. Rather, it looks like a projection of U.S. power in the region."

Falk immediately turns the question toward U.S. motives rather than whether Kobani needs help or has asked for it and what other kinds of help besides bombing might be available.
To Graeber, this way of framing the question is sadly one-sided; anti-imperialist critique is insufficient without solidarity. He visited Rojava as part of the academic delegation, and on his return, described it as “a genuine revolution”:

"But in a way that’s exactly the problem. The major powers have committed themselves to an ideology that say[s] real revolutions can no longer happen. Meanwhile, many on the left, even the radical left, seem to have tacitly adopted a politics which assumes the same, even though they still make superficially revolutionary noises. They take a kind of puritanical “anti-imperialist” framework that assumes the significant players are governments and capitalists and that’s the only game worth talking about."

What is the problem here?  Are we in the United States too cynical or depressed to believe anything new can happen? Are we able to recognize revolutionary ideas when they come from Greece, Spain, or Latin America but not from the Middle East? Are we so sexist we can’t take the idea of a feminist revolution seriously? Or is the problem simply ignorance? If so, knowing the story might help. Let’s start with the Yazidis.
Saving the Yazidis
Until August 2014, few Americans had ever heard of the Yazidis, an Iraqi Kurdish minority practicing an ancient religion close to Zoroastrianism. Then ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL, or the Islamic State) entered Sinjar, and the Yazidis—abandoned by both the Iraqi army and the much-hyped Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga—fled north into the mountains. Soon stories began to appear of genocidal attacks that wiped out the entire male population of villages and of hundreds of Yazidi women and children being raped, sold into slavery, or forced to marry ISIS fighters.
On August 6, Reuters reported that 50,000 Yazidis were trapped in the mountains above Sinjar in danger of imminent starvation. The next day, Obama authorized limited air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and air drops of supplies to the Yazidis. But this was hardly enough to remedy the growing humanitarian disaster. As the United States continued to “weigh its options,” the UK and Germany talked about sending aid, and the Pope condemned ISIS, the Yazidis remained trapped.
Then came a rescue so dramatic it was worthy of a Hollywood movie: the YPG and YPJ militias, without heavy weapons or air cover, crossed from Syria into the mountains of Iraq and cut a corridor to evacuate the Yazidis. Suddenly the Western press was full of pictures of attractive young women in uniform—there has been more than a touch of Orientalist fantasy in Western coverage of the women’s militias.  This coverage has barely touched upon their politics, beyond ominous references to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Turkey.
Turkey, for its part, played a lamentable role in the battle of Kobani. Observers including David L. Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for Human Rights assert that “Turkey is providing military, logistical, financial and medical support for Daesh [ISIS] and other jihadists.”
Kurdish spokespeople say the same. And President Erdogan did not allay their suspicions when he told the press that, for Turkey, the Kurds and ISIS were six of one, half dozen of the other.
Erdogan also predicted in October that Kobani would fall any minute. But, despite Turkey’s aid to ISIS and the Kurds’ lack of heavy weapons and supplies, the YPG and YPJ militias fought on against very heavy odds, and after months of battle, were able to drive ISIS out of Kobani  in January. Along the way, they began attracting Western volunteers, several of whom have been killed.
While the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are theoretically allies against ISIS, the Iraqi Kurds are also allied with Turkey and this has led to significant tensions between the two Kurdish factions. There are enormous political differences between them on questions of governance, women’s rights, ecology, and nationalism. The political parties that lead the Iraqi Kurds, longtime favorites of the United States, are in the process of establishing their own petro-state, and, while women may be better off in Kirkuk than in the rest of Iraq, as Houzan Mahmoud of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq points out, they still suffer from “honour killings, FGM, forced marriages, early marriages, stoning, rape, marital rape and many other forms of violence.” The Barzani government has done little to address these problems. As Kurdish feminist Dilar Dirik writes in “What Kind of Kurdistan for Women”:

"It is interesting that the Kurdish entity that is most state-like, most integrated into the capitalist system, and which complies with the requirements of the local powers such as Turkey and Iran, as well as the international system, displays the least interest in women’s rights and the challenge of patriarchy."

Dirik notes Iraqi Kurdistan’s “lack of truly independent, non-partisan women’s organisations,” the dominance of “tribalist, feudalist politics . . . encourag[ing] patriarchal attitudes,” and a crowning irony: “Many women’s organisations in South Kurdistan are even chaired by men!” She contrasts this to the feminism of the Rojava cantons, where “Men with a history of domestic violence or polygamy are excluded from organizations” and “Violence against women and child marriage are outlawed and criminalised.” This is a reflection of the socialist-feminist praxis of the PKK, which has evolved significantly since its inception as a Marxist-Leninist party in the 1970s.
Who are the PKK?
The PKK, founded in 1978, grew out of the Turkish leftwing student movement and initially had much in common with other radical movements inspired by China and Vietnam. Its goal was to establish an independent and socialist Kurdish state by waging people’s war. Its cadres settled in the countryside to build a peasant movement; their first targets were feudal landlords who oppressed the people and acted as local enforcers for the Turkish military.
Two years after the PKK was founded, Turkey had a military coup followed by a period of extreme repression and a war on the Kurds. As in other guerilla wars, the government met the slightest provocation with overwhelming force, and villagers were caught in the middle, forced to choose between the PKK and the Turkish military. In a 1993 report, Helsinki Watch (the original committee of Human Rights Watch) cited atrocities including the assassinations of more than 450 people—among them journalists, teachers, doctors, and human rights activists—by “assailants using death squad tactics.” The Turkish government never investigated the killings and was widely suspected of being complicit in them. Helsinki Watch also noted that, during this campaign, Turkey remained the third largest recipient of American aid, after Israel and Egypt, and that the George H.W. Bush administration expressed vocal support for violence against the Kurds.
The PKK, too, committed human rights abuses: they tried and hanged informers, were reported to have killed civilians (for example, by bombing an Istanbul shopping mall in 1991 and shooting worshippers in a mosque in Diyarbakir in 1992), kidnapped Western tourists (who were later released), and coordinated attacks on Turkish offices in six West European countries, among other acts of terrorism. But the scale of their violence pales in comparison to the mass killings of Kurds by the Turkish state.
Since its founding, the PKK has been led by Abdullah Ocalan (pronounced “uh-djah-lan”). Though his critics say that Ocalan did not rethink the people’s war strategy until he was captured in 1999, insiders like Cemil Bayik, another PKK founder, and Havin Guneser, Ocalan’s translator, say that during the 1990s, he and others began to examine the need to find a political rather than a military solution to the conflict; he also put increasing emphasis on democracy and women’s rights. This was, in part, a reflection of the evolution of the organization. By the eighties, PKK membership was largely made up of rural Kurds whose villages had been attacked; in order to deal with the feudal and nationalistic ideas of these new recruits, women cadre realized they needed autonomous women’s organizations. According to Necla Acik, Ocalan himself was becoming more feminist because “it was women who supported him most during the turbulent years following his arrest and the declaration of his new political, and at that time controversial, line. In return Öcalan became more radical in his promotion of gender liberation and urged women within the party to question male dominance within their own ranks.”
The Birth of Democratic Confederalism
Kept in almost total isolation after 1999, when he was captured in a combined Greece-Kenya-Turkey-CIA operation, Ocalan did a lot of reading. He was particularly influenced by anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin, world systems theorists Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel, and theorist of nationalism Benedict Anderson. He publicly disowned his previous beliefs in democratic centralism and armed struggle, writing in 2008 that a state-like hierarchical party structure was a contradiction to “principles of democracy, freedom and equality;” he also distanced himself from the PKK culture in which “War was understood as the continuation of politics by different means and romanticized as a strategic instrument.” Ocalan was similarly critical of nationalism and the goal of a Kurdish state, arguing that nation-states were intrinsically hierarchical and that the goal instead should be a confederation of Kurds and other peoples living in the region. The idea was that Kurds should withdraw their energies from their respective states and develop their own democratic economies and methods of self-governance—anti-capitalist, anti-statist, and environmentally sound. In short, they should work towards dual power.
Since his arrest, Ocalan has written several volumes of prison essays, selections of which have since been translated and released as downloadable pamphlets. The two most recent—Democratic Confederalism (2012) and Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution (2014)—relate directly to the emergence of the socialist-feminist cantons in Rojava.
Ocalan calls his political philosophy democratic confederalism. While this philosophy has much in common with anarchism, participatory democracy, and libertarian socialism, no other major left-wing movement, with the possible exception of the Zapatistas, has put women’s liberation so squarely at the center of its revolutionary project. In fact, despite slogans like Mao’s “women hold up half the sky,” Marxist revolutions have—at best—seen women as support troops or a stripe in the rainbow, not as a historically submerged and dominated majority whose liberation is fundamental to everyone else’s.  National liberation movements have been similar: women are encouraged to be politically active and even to serve as soldiers during the struggle, but, once the battle is won, patriarchal norms are reasserted in the name of religion or indigenous tradition. In contrast, here’s Ocalan in Liberating Life: “The solutions for all social problems in the Middle East should have woman’s position as focus. . . . The role the working class have once played, must now be taken over by the sisterhood of women.” This is an amazing statement for a former Marxist guerilla; only the most radical of Western feminists would even dare to propose it.
How much of this for real?
In the months I have been studying this revolution, I have frequently asked myself, “How much of this is for real?” I have known a lot of male leftists who talk a good line about women’s liberation but fall woefully short in practice. I also get nervous about the “stereotyped party writing” that comes out of the PKK. And I have seen more than one Potemkin Village. But revolutions are driven by contradictions; PKK style may resemble that of China in the 1970s but the content is different. And, though I have problems with what seems like a cult of personality, Ocalan’s main message for women has been that they should organize themselves.
The ten members of the academic delegation who visited Rojava in December went with questions similar to mine: “Do its practices really constitute a revolution? Do they live up to its democratic ideals? What role do women actually play?” Upon their return, they made this public statement:

"In Rojava, we believe, genuinely democratic structures have indeed been established. Not only is the system of government accountable to the people, but it springs out of new structures that make direct democracy possible: popular assemblies and democratic councils. Women participate on an equal footing with men at every level and also organize in autonomous councils, assemblies, and committees to address their specific concerns. . . . Rojava, we believe, points to an alternative future for Syria and the Middle East, a future where the peoples of different ethnic backgrounds and religions can live together, united by mutual tolerance and common institutions. Kurdish organizations have led the way, but they increasingly gain support from Arabs, Assyrians, and Chechens, who participate in their common system of self-government and organize autonomously."

I went on a similar trip to China in 1973, during the last years of the Cultural Revolution, and remember the way I tried to disregard my own misgivings and failed to recognize that much of what one hears from party activists may be more aspiration than achievement. But even if only half of what the academic delegation saw is real, Rojava is a game changer. Imagine what a liberated area with a secular, egalitarian approach to women, governance, economics, land usage, and ecological sustainability could mean for the Middle East. Kurdistan has borders in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; if Rojava can survive, dissidents from the whole region will have a place they can run to escape forced marriages and get a secular education—for Rojava has started its own university, the Mesopotamian Academy of Social Sciences, which is now holding a book drive.
But to be a game changer, it has to survive. Kobani has been liberated, but the city was destroyed and needs to be rebuilt—after the land mines are cleared. And the YPG and YPJ are still fighting ISIS in the rural areas, hampered by a complete Turkish embargo that prevents them from getting weapons and keeps UN supplies and food from reaching refugees. These refugees include Yazidis, Arabs, Turkmen, and others from both Syria and Iraq, including Mosul. There is one flour mill for the whole area and not a lot of other food. The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government—the Iraqi Kurds, led by Barzani) are not letting very much through on their side of the border because of their alliance with Turkey, and the UN has not pushed either Turkey or the KRG to let in supplies or move refugees to a safer place. The cantons have no money and a tiny economy, and because the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization, Rojava has no access to international aid.
Under these circumstances, international solidarity is not only an obligation; it is a necessity.
I recently spoke to someone from the Kurdish women’s movement in Rojava and asked what they need most. She said they need a massive international solidarity campaign, beginning with political education about the evolution of the PKK and its politics, including its emphasis on democratic governance, anti-sectarianism, secularism, ecology, and women’s liberation. In practical terms, they need all possible international pressure to be put on Turkey and the KRG to end the embargo and let supplies through. They need the terrorist designation to be lifted so they can travel and raise money and do public speaking. Their representatives should be allowed into the United States and other Western countries; though neither the PYD nor other Rojava groups are actually on the terrorist list, they are damned because of their relationship to the PKK; just this January, the United States rejected a visa application by Salih Muslim, co-president of the PYD.
Some oppose lifting the PKK’s terrorist designation because of its past violations of human rights. But, while caution is reasonable, people and movements have to be allowed room to evolve. The leaders of many liberation movements were once considered terrorists, including Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya, and two prime ministers of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was jailed as a terrorist and released after many years so he could negotiate with the Boer government. Like Mandela, Ocalan should be released from jail to lead negotiations with Turkey.
In 1988, I wrote an article for Dissent called “The Sound of One Hand Clapping: Women’s Liberation and the Left.” I concluded,

"The socialist movement can’t get on without the dream and language of transformation, applied to job and family as well as international politics. Socialism needs the ability to dream as much as women’s liberation needs the ability to think strategically. Only by creating a political culture that is not split down the middle by gender can any of us find the answers we need to change the world."

Starting from near-feudal circumstances, in the middle of a devastating war, people in the Rojava cantons are trying to create such a culture. We need to learn from them—and help.

For those who wish to inform themselves further about Rojava or support people there, here are some links.
Information and campaigning resources:
ANF News
Hawar News (Anha)
International Free Ocalan Campaign page
Jinha, the first women's news agency in the Middle East
Kurdish Question
Peace in Kurdistan Campaign (UK)
Rojava Report
Kurdish Question
Kurdish Resistance and Liberation Facebook page
Kurdish Revolution Info Group's Facebook page
Kobane Reconstruction Board Facebook page
Donations are being processed by the Kurdish movement in Germany
Help Kobani website
In the UK support for Rojava is being coordinated by the Rojava Solidarity Working Group.  The New York group is collecting books to send to the university in Rojava.
Rpjava Solidarity Committee UK
Rojava Solidarity NYC

The Kurds: a bit of background
[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015
The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  
Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.
Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.
Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - 13:09

How to help Rojava: links
For those who wish to inform themselves further about Rojava or support people there, here are some links.
Information and campaigning resources:
ANF News
Hawar News (Anha)
International Free Ocalan Campaign page
Jinha, the first women's news agency in the Middle East
Kurdish Question
Peace in Kurdistan Campaign (UK)
Rojava Report
Kurdish Question
Kurdish Resistance and Liberation Facebook page
Kurdish Revolution Info Group's Facebook page
Kobane Reconstruction Board Facebook page
Donations are being processed by the Kurdish movement in Germany
Help Kobani website
In the UK support for Rojava is being coordinated by the Rojava Solidarity Working Group.  The New York group is collecting books to send to the university in Rojava.
Rpjava Solidarity Committee UK
Rojava Solidarity NYC

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 - 14:50

On February 26, 2015, The Washington Post revealed that ISIS’s “Jihadi John,” who beheaded seven prisoners on video, was a college grad from West London called Mohammed Emwazi and was known to Asim Qureshi, research director of Cage.  Cage (formerly called Cageprisoners) then gave a press conference in which Qureshi said Emwazi was “extremely kind, extremely gentle, extremely soft spoken, was the most humble young person that I knew,” and that the only reason Emwazi had joined ISIS was resentment at his treatment by British security forces, who had refused to let him travel to Somalia and Kuwait.
Cage’s praise of Emwazi became front page news, reviving the scandal of 2010 when Gita Sahgal, founder of the Centre for Secular Space, said that Cage was a jihadi defense group not a human rights organization and Amnesty should not be partnering with it.  Under concerted attack, she had to resign from AI, where she was head of the gender unit; she has now been vindicated. 
On March 2, Gita was interviewed on BBC4’s “Today”, along with an AI spokesman, and said, “Immense damage has been done to Amnesty, not least because they won’t come clean about their association with Cage;” she charged that Amnesty has “taken their research from them, they have shared logos with them, they have produced briefing papers together, signed letters to the government together.”  On March 6, in a devastating exposure on BBC’s “This Week”, Andrew McNeill interviewed Asim Qureshi and could not even get him to disavow stoning.
After that the media storm could no longer be contained.  Kate Allen of Amnesty UK issued a press release on March 12 saying “Amnesty no longer considers it appropriate to share a public platform with Cage and will not engage in coalitions of which Cage is a member.”  The release, however, does not include any apology for past actions, or questioning of AI’s previous conduct.
In addition, the UK Charities Commission has come down hard on Cage’s two main charitable donors, the Roddick Foundation and the  Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, both of which have now issued statements that they will no longer fund Cage.  The Rowntree Trust organized a letter to the Times, published March 11 and signed by a massive list of notables, to show their support for its work “under regulatory pressure and media attacks.”
You can continue to follow this story and others on the Centre for Secular Space’s Facebook page.

Saturday, January 17, 2015 - 16:10

Women and Islamic Militancy: A Response
First published in Dissent, Winter 2015.
To read Rafia Zakaria’s original article, click here.
Why do Muslim girls in the West run away to join ISIS? Rafia Zakaria argues that they are responding to online propaganda that “underscores the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed in U.S. military campaigns but also professes to have created a post-national, post-racial, and perfectly just society ordered by Islamic norms.” She hypothesizes that ISIS may offer “an escape from a nation where to be an equal citizen requires abandoning the dictates of one’s religion.” While she emphasizes that the main duty of these girls will be to marry and propagate, she also describes them as “women warriors,” making an extended comparison between them and Aafia Siddiqi, who refused to “submit to traditional female roles” and whom she believes represents “an alternative, if highly controversial, portrait of empowerment that groups like ISIS use to appeal to other women.”
Let’s stop for a moment to note that ISIS has enslaved thousands of Iraqi and Syrian women, mostly from minority groups; it has even reportedly published a pamphlet detailing the proper way to treat female captives, which includes immediate rape, with no exceptions made for young children. One of its recent propaganda coups, according to an Iraqi news source, was to release a price list showing the costs of Christian and Yazidi female slaves of different age groups, probably as an inducement to foreign fighters; the youngest children are the most expensive and foreign fighters are not allowed more than three per person.
So, yes, it is important to try to understand why Western Muslim girls—or anybody else—would want to join such a violent group. The question is, how much do we really know about the runaways? Is Zakaria working from a sample large and well-documented enough to support her hypotheses, or are other conclusions equally plausible?
Two researchers at Kings College, London, have been tracking female recruits to ISIS from the UK. Melanie Smith of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has a database of twenty-five such girls; she emphasizes the romantic lure of a man with a gun and says a number of girls have run away to marry jihadists they have met online. Indeed, some of the online methods used to engage these teenage girls resonate with grooming techniques used by pimps; a recent investigation by the London Times points to an organized ring of “facilitators” in East London, offering girls as young as fourteen passports, travel help, and money for travel to marry jihadists in Syria. The BBC interviewed a number of girls in Luton who said they wanted to go and some knew so little about either Islam or politics that they were not even aware ISIS was fighting other Muslims.
Another researcher at Kings, Katharine Brown of the Defense Studies Department, says girls who join ISIS do not all want the same thing: some want to be jihadi brides; some are drawn by the utopian vision of a caliphate; and many just want to be independent, get away from their parents, and have adventures.
Zakaria speculates on the attraction of ISIS for “French Muslim schoolgirls who are excluded from school for wearing headscarves [and who] live and learn in relative isolation from the mainstream of French society.” Certainly some French runaways fit this description, like fifteen-year-old Soukaïna, whose parents had no idea she frequented jihadist websites until they were warned by the cops; three months later she stole her sister’s passport and headed for Syria. Another fifteen-year-old French girl, Nora el-Bathy, came from a family that was Muslim but not Islamist and only donned her veil after she left home in the morning. She went to Syria thinking she could work in a hospital; when ISIS made her stay inside and do babysitting instead she wanted to come home but her brother couldn’t get her out.
According to Dounia Bouzar, the anthropologist founder of the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam (CPDSI), most young French women who seek jihad do not come from particularly religious families; they are good students who want to go to Syria either to marry a devout Muslim or provide humanitarian aid. She says, “There is a mix of indoctrination and seduction. . . .They upload photos of bearded Prince Charmings on Facebook.”
Zakaria says most Muslim girls from the West who join ISIS are between eighteen and twenty-five and are attracted “because its political vision appears to offer a solution to some of the problems that plague them.” But are they adults capable of making mature decisions? They are certainly capable and well-enough organized to deceive their parents and find a network to help them travel. Zahra and Salma Halane, sixteen-year-old twin sisters from Manchester, the children of Somali refugees, had twenty-eight GCSEs between them (most students take eight or nine) and were enrolled in college until they ran away to marry ISIS warriors. Aqsa Mahmood, whom Zakaria quotes, was a twenty-year-old pre-med from Glasgow, educated in private schools; she is now married and produces a recruiting blog under the name Umm Layth.
But no matter how well-organized and educated they may be, most of the girls whose stories we actually know tend to be fifteen or sixteen. Can we really compare these teenagers to Aafia Siddiqi, a thirty-five-year-old PhD with degrees in biology and neuroscience, married twice, with three children, and a dedicated Islamist for many years, who, when captured in 2008, was reportedly carrying cyanide crystals and documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs.
Zakaria also hypothesizes that some women join ISIS because they can more easily remarry there if they divorce or are widowed: “A divorced or widowed woman with children can rarely remarry in Afghanistan or Pakistan.” But no evidence of Afghan or Pakistani women joining ISIS has yet emerged, so how does this apply? And, while divorce may be disgraceful in Afghanistan, it is so common in Pakistan that more than 100 divorces take place every day in Lahore alone. So whom is she actually talking about here?
Zakaria posits that Muslim girls in the West see ISIS as an opportunity because the United States has destroyed the option of feminism in their countries. “Since the rhetoric of women’s liberation has been used to justify the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a group like ISIS which violently opposes those interventions can gain a degree of legitimacy unavailable to secular feminists in those nations, who are constantly and consistently under attack for propagating Western ideas and being handmaidens to foreign occupation.”
Let’s look closely at this thesis. Conservative opposition to women’s movements hardly began with 9/11. Patriarchal conservatives in the Global South have been calling local feminists tools of the West since at least the nineties and very likely since the nineteenth century. As I wrote in 1999, “To nationalist, communalist and religious backlash movements, feminism, no matter how rooted in local conditions, represents the globalizing forces that are undercutting patriarchal traditions. For them, it is intrinsically foreign, a fifth column undermining their efforts at unity. . . . the successes of the women’s movement are also seen only as symptoms of globalization, rather than as the result of an autonomous movement for female emancipation.”
But if conservatives see local groups like Shirkat Gah and the Women’s Action Forum in Pakistan, the Afghan Women’s Network, and the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq as a modernizing fifth column, doesn’t that make it all the more necessary for women in the rest of the world to show some solidarity rather than dismiss women’s desire for equality?
Rather than call for such solidarity, Zakaria cites Laura Bush and concludes that, because the Bush administration said it wanted to help Afghan women, “the very idea of gender equality [has become] tainted as a pretext for foreign occupation. This dynamic—repeated in Iraq and even Pakistan (with U.S-led drone attacks on one end and U.S.-funded women’s empowerment projects on the other)—creates a political opening for an alternative form of female empowerment, even though it is one that men control, and which allows the rape and murder of women who do not conform.”
Surely there is some cognitive dissonance in the idea of “an alternative form of female empowerment . . . that men control” which, moreover, “allows the rape and murder of women who do not conform?”
Let’s call the phenomenon by its right name: This is not female empowerment but a buy-in by some young Sunni women to a fascist ideology that gives them admission to a society run by an elite group of warriors who have life and death power over other women—Yazidis, Shi’a, Ahmadis, Christians. All they have to do to join this elite is consent to their own subordination. They have even been allowed to form their own little militia, the al-Khansaa brigade, to police other women. The bargain is exactly the same as that made by women who join other poisonous right wing groups based on racial or ideological purity, like Nazi women, women of the Hindu right, or the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan.
So if Zakaria is correct and some of the runaway girls from the West have made mature, considered decisions, we have to ask, what kind of decisions have they made? Is it sufficient to talk about empowerment in the case of Mujahidah Bint Usama, a doctor who posted a picture of herself in Raqqa holding a severed head, with the message, “Dream job, a terrorist doc,” followed by smiley faces and hearts? What kind of empowerment is represented by Aqsa Mahmood, who wrote in a September blog post:

Know this Cameron/Obama, you and your countries will be beneath our feet and your Kufr [unbelievers] will be destroyed, this is a promise from Allah swt [abbreviation for ‘glorified and exalted be He’] that we have no doubt over. If not you then your grandchildren or their grandchildren. But worry not, somewhere along the line your blood will be spilled by our cubs in Dawlah [your country]. We have conquered these lands once Beithnillah [God willing] we will do it again. Read up on your History, and know that it will repeat itself, you will pay Jizyah [tax on non-Muslims] to us just like you did in the past. This Islamic Empire shall be known and feared world wide and we will follow none other than the Law of the one and the only ilah [God]!

Another question: if Zakaria is looking for examples of female empowerment in Syria, why pick women in ISIS? Why not choose the determined women in local Syrian civil society groups who insist on holding meetings, educating children, and carrying on humanitarian work under the most unpromising conditions? Why not choose the Women’s Defence Units affiliated with the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party? Necla Acik has described how these women’s militias rescued thousands of Yazidis who, fleeing ISIS massacres and slave markets, got trapped in the Sinjar mountains last August:

Setting off from Rojava, these fighters cleared more than a 100km passage through northern Iraq to Mount Sinjar and broke the siege of IS. They provided the desperate refugees with a secure corridor, which enabled them to embark on a 24 hour march into the relatively safe northern part of Syria/Rojava, where they received immediate medical attention, food and shelter.

Dilar Dirik adds, “the mass-mobilisation of women in Kobane is the legacy of decades-long resistance of Kurdish women as fighters, prisoners, politicians, leaders of popular uprisings and tireless protesters, unwilling to compromise on their rights.”
The Kobane women’s militia members are not only women warriors, they are feminists, socialists, and secularists. Is that why Zakaria avoids making them part of the picture—because they disprove her thesis that egalitarian feminist ideas are no longer viable in war-torn Muslim-majority countries? The women who hold equal leadership positions in the Rojava cantons do not seem to feel that secular feminism is a hopelessly outdated and compromised idea. As their example becomes more widely known, I suspect many other women in South Asia, the Middle East, and the West will find their insistence on women’s equality a more useful model of female empowerment than that of high-school girls who run off to join ISIS.

Friday, January 2, 2015 - 00:24

New Year's Message: The Rojava Revolution
At the end of such a dark and difficult year, one searches for light. It can sometimes be found in unexpected places—like the Rojava cantons, Afrin, Jazeera, and Kobane.  These are three Kurdish-controlled regions in a mountainous rural area of Northern Syria, engaged in a life and death fight with the Islamic State (aka ISIL, ISIS, and DAESH). You have probably seen news articles about the Kurdish women soldiers fighting ISIS in Kobane but there has been very little in the Western media about the fact that these soldiers, who are part of a militia called the YPG, are feminist, secularist, anti-state, opposed to narrow nationalism, and engaged in a revolution whose current leadership is 40% women from the bottom to the top, including the military wing.
The YPG militias are associated with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which was founded in 1978 as a Marxist-Leninist organization seeking an independent Kurdistan through armed struggle.  The PKK is on the NATO, EU and Turkish terrorist lists because until the turn of the century they carried out terrorist actions against the Turkish government and civilians.  That phase ended with Turkey's capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999, and he was held in solitary confinement on an island, where he did a lot of reading.  As a result he renounced Marxism-Leninism in favor of nonviolence and what he calls "democratic confederalism," a bottom-up form of libertarian socialism modeled in part on the theories of Murray Bookchin.  The PKK no longer calls for an independent Kurdish state but for a confederation in which local Kurdish regions would have autonomy but continue as part of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
I have lived long enough to have seen the glow of many socialist revolutions vanish.  Nor I have been to the Rojava cantons, so I cannot speak from first hand knowledge.  I have however been following this story because I believe that feminism, grassroots democracy, and a secular state are fundamental to any kind of social change worth having. I am writing this to share some materials I have gathered.  
Two pieces by David Graeber of Occupy Wall Street

The consititution of the Rojava cantons.
Two articles by Dilar Dilip, a PhD student at Cambridge

Gönül Kaya, "Why Jineology? Re-Constructing the Sciences towards a Communal and Free Life," March 2014.  A more theoretical article calling for a sociology of freedom.
Necla Acik, "Kobane: the struggle of Kurdish women agasint Islamic State," Oct. 22, 2014.
Two maps show the location of the cantons and way they are squeezed between ISIS and Turkey. 
Here's a map of the war zone dated Sept. 15, 2014. The Rojava cantons are bright yellow.  As you can see, they are surrounded by gray ISIS controlled areas and they are not continguous.  The Kurds have been asking Turkey to open up a land corridor for them but Turkey  has so far refused.
Here is a map  from Aug. 2014 of the whole Kurdish area in all four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Happy New Year!

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". 
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.


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. 

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.

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.

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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