Saturday, January 10, 2015

Religion and respect

In all the "I am Charlie" upheaval about the attacks in Paris one can also sometimes hear a countervoice. That is a voice that says that "they had it coming" by insulting 1.6 billion Muslims in the core of their existence: you need only one madman who doesn't suffer in silence but takes action.

These approaches come from different cultural backgrounds. Those countervoices come from societies where religions live in mutual respect. They have the assumption that society is static and that people will die in the religion in which they were born. In such an environment religion is something like the color of your skin: it is a part of your identity and as such it should be respected. Atheists who want to denounce their former religion will find that their freedom to do so is severely restricted.

However, religion is not just a passive identity. It can be very active, both trying to recruit converts and to impose its vision on society. In that form religion looks a lot like ideologies and for ideologies we don't have this kind of respect. We don't mind people accusing communism of enslaving people or neoliberalism of stealing from the poor to give to the rich. We may not agree but we believe it is essential free speech. In this context we know the borders between free speech and respect. We may not agree with our communist neighbor or colleague but we will not use our arguments in a way that humiliates them. We still respect them as a human.

Similarly we usually know the limits of joking about religion. There are much more jokes about the "foot between the door" of the proselytizing Jehovah Witnesses than about the Virginal Birth because the first is an active "ideological" point while the latter is a basic part of the belief without consequences for non-believers.

Jihadi's are by excellence Muslims with an activist "ideological" agenda. Often they actively seek points of difference so that they can achieve small victories. See for example "Islamic banking" that was invented as an ideological statement yet has no long long history within Islam. In this context Charlie Hebdo's criticism of Islamist extremism is fully justified.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Using psychology against ISIS

In its article "In Battle to Defang ISIS, U.S. Targets Its Psychology" the NY Times discussed a "brain trust" set up by Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East in order to better understand ISIS. His assumption is that in order to defeat ISIS he will first need to understand its attraction and strength. According to the article they are humble: "We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea." Well, they never will. Their mistake is too fundamental. This is not about just an idea: this is about a winning idea.

50 years ago Arab socialism was in fashion and many in the Middle East believed that Islam was holding the region back. The spirit of Atatürk, who modernized Turkey while sidelining Islam, was still very much alive. So there is nothing in the Arab culture or the Muslim religion that makes the present obsession with radicalism inevitable. That radical Islam became as strong as it is is the result of deliberate decisions by both local and Western politicians:

- From the 1950s on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have played a major role in promoting radical Islamist movements and uprisings. That way they want to protect themselves both from the appeal of Arab socialism and the appeal of Western liberalism. It helps them to keep influence in the region and it keeps the restless at home busy with foreign adventures.

- Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States have not stopped promoting radical Islam. They have only switched from promoting the Brotherhood to promoting Salafism. For the average Jihadi in the West this won't make much of a difference: their Islamic organizations always looked more like individualistic Salafism than like the very organized Brotherhood.

- Afghanistan was another contributing factor. Thanks to US machinations Islamists won there in the 1970s from one of the main superpowers.

- Oil wealth also counts: for the many Arab migrant workers in the Gulf States it is seductive to believe that conservative Islam and wealth are related.

- More recently the US further helped the Islamists by overthrowing one secular leader after another: Saddam, Gaddafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak. Assad is still under attack. It is really amazing to see how easily the US could be manipulated by the Saudi's to support their agenda.

ISIS and radical Islam have now the aura of being winners. That counts more than any specific ideology. And given the many sources of this winner aura and the weakness of the alternative ideologies this isn't likely to change soon.

See also my post from a few years ago Comparing communists and the Muslim Brotherhood. It discusses similarities between how radical Islam is organized now and how communism was organized in its heydays outside the communist countries.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

How Obama is repeating one of Bush's worst mistakes

In May 2003 - a little over a month after the fall of Baghdad - the newly arrived Paul Bremer released two radical orders: he barred members of the Baath Party from all but the lowliest government posts and he disbanded the Iraqi army.

Those orders are nowadays generally seen as the spark that caused the Sunni insurrection in Iraq. Yet at the time the criticism was limited and even now Bremer and some others defend the orders.

What strikes in this defense is the use of generalizations as in "to the vast majority of Iraqis [the army] was a symbol of the old Baathist-led Sunni ascendancy" and [the army] was "mistrusted by the very Iraqi people it is supposed to protect". In the logic of Bush, Rumsfeld and Bremer there was only one "Iraqi people" and they were happy that Saddam was gone. Somehow they didn't get it that most Sunni and at least some Shiites might not be happy that Saddam was gone. Neither did they get it that many Shiites - seeing the anarchy - might have serious doubts about the new order.

That brings me to Obama. His methods may have been a bit different, but Obama has beaten Bush with the number of regime changes he has achieved. One of those was in Ukraine. Ukraine is still full of US advisors who are very influential. There too there will now be a very comprehensive "lustration". And there too the police and army are cleansed of "pro-Russians".

Other former communist countries had lustrations too. However, these were meant to get rid of a few embarrassing left-overs of communist times. Unlike those in Iraq and Ukraine they were not meant to shift the power balance and to rob a large segment of the population of influence on the future of the country.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Luxembourg Leaks

A consortium of journalists has published a list of 550 Luxemburgian tax laws: these 'Luxleaks' are now public on the site www.icij.org and told stories about how these are used by multinationals to evade taxes. See also this article in Dutch.

The destruction of banking

The site Follow The Money (FTM) has an article (in Dutch: "EEN BLIK ACHTER DE GORDIJNEN BIJ RABO’S BIJZONDER BEHEER") about the department for problematic customers of Rabo Bank, based on a number of interviews with former employees and customers of the bank.

In the past this department operated as you would expect such a department to operate: trying to get as much money from the customer as possible. Now things have changed and an important part in that has been played by the activism over the local oversight organisations.

Several former employees confirmed that they are judged on filing their reports on time and having checked all the points in the file and not on how much money they have saved for the bank. Rabobank is very afraid that its more than hundred semi-independent local branched don't have their files on order, among others because they got a fine a few years ago from the AFM (Authority for the Financial Markets) because there were problems in the mortgage files of some local branches. Oversight of the banks has also become much stricter since it was transferred to the European Central Bank. ‘Banks in Europa are under great pressure to make clear how many bad loans they have and whether they have enough provisions to cover them. That causes labor intensive administration that doesn't benefit the customer’, according to Sonja.

Nowadays the accent in the department is on "closing the files" and reporting. One employee describes spending five days to write a report on a client who went bankrupt a week later. Adapting a loan - reducing it or delaying the payment - has become a very burdensome bureaucratic process that needs several approvals.

The big question of course is to what an extent similar processes are happening at other banks. I am not optimistic.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

What game is the US playing in Iraq and Syria?

What strikes me about the role of the US air force in Iraq and Syria is that its role is so restricted. It only drops very expensive precision bombs. It never carpet bombs areas, it never strifes hostile forces from a plane with machine guns and it never drops supplies on allied forces that are surrounded. Coordination with allied forces seems to be minimal. The first days when the US air force operated in synch with the Kurds were an exception. Nowadays it seems to fulfil its own program of targets that has hardly any relationship with the needs of the allied troops on the ground.

Kobane's chances would much improve if the US supplied the Kurdish fighters there with anti-armor arms.

The Yazidi's are still fighting against the IS and complain that they hardly get any support from the US air force.

Soldiers from the fallen Iraqi base of Camp Saqlawiyah complained of lack of food and water - things that easily could have been supplied from the air.

The allies
Formally The Gulf States and Turkey are allies in our fight against ISIS. I don't believe it for a moment. They just have concluded that - as the US will attack anyway - they better be involved so that they can minimize the "harm" (as they see it) that the US is doing. Erdogan has gone as far as saying that he considers the PYD (the ruling Kurdish party in Kobane) equally harmful as ISIS.

There are lots of theories about what Turkey and the Arabs want to achieve. They keep pushing for more active US involvement against Assad. They might well believe that a massacre in Kobane would be beneficial to draw the US closer into the Syrian conflict.

Turkey wants now a buffer zone inside Syria that would give the rebels a home base. Conveniently it would also allow Turkey to crush the zones that are now controlled by the PYD. Predictably the Kurds oppose the idea.

One can only hope that one day Obama will realize that his whole Arab Spring project was madness disguised as policy. And that he finally will bring up the courage to say that regime change is not inside his job description. Unfortunately until now he is behaving like a servant to the belligerent anti-Assad rhetoric from the Gulf States and Turkey.

Many have noticed that Obama only became interested in attacking ISIS after it had killed some American journalists. This suggests that Obama is more influenced by opinion polls than by a clear vision in such an important issue - a devastating conclusion that suggests incompetence.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Israel's colonial repression

Anyone who has read about the fighting in Gaza will have noticed that Israel is defending the massive number of civilians killed by claiming that the Hamas fighters are hiding behind civilians.

That claim is right. However, hiding among civilians is standard guerrilla strategy. Yet most countries fighting a guerrilla uprising will not use the kind of methods Israel is using. A good example is how the US reacted to the guerrilla it faced in Iraq and Afghanistan: although it's behavior was far from perfect it took considerable effort to avoid civilian casualties. That was not totally altruistic: they were aware that winning "hearts and minds" is an important part of subduing a guerrilla war.

Yet Israel's strategy is not new. It was often used in colonial wars. It was also how the US dealt with insurgent Indians in the 19th century. It shows an attitude where the other side is seen as subhuman.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Israel's futile battle against Hamas

Israel cannot eradicate Hamas. In fact every Palestinian it kills now in Gaza is a justification for the existence of Hamas and will drive more Palestinians to support Hamas.

If Israel wants to be seen by the Palestinians as a reliable partner that is prepared to let them live and prosper it should behave as such. It should stop stealing Palestinian houses and land. It should stop suffocation the Palestinian economy and it should take a murdered Palestinian just as serious as a murdered Jew.

Just as the English in Northern Ireland they will still have to suffer terrorism for a while. But that will gradually decrease and in the end stop when it follows an appropriate policy.

Problem is that Israel is in the same position as the whites in the US in the 19th century when they largely exterminated the Indians. They too have a large lobby that is growing rich by stealing land. They too have politicians who know that there is a group against which they can safely indulge in hate mongering. And they too are largely left off the hook by the world public opinion.

But given Israel's geographical position among a sea of Arabs it is a dangerous strategy that well may go wrong in the long term.

Obama makes it hard not to believe conspiracy theories

Sometimes Obama makes it hard not to believe conspiracy theories.

If he really cared about the MH17 he would long ago have released his satellite data and pressured Kiev to release conversations of the plane with the control tower. Instead he hides data and evades questions about why the plane followed an alternative route and was forced to fly lower and whether there was an Ukrainian fighter jet near the plane.

If he really cared about Ukraine he would have pressed for real negotiations. Putin could live with the Orange revolution. He won't ask too much now. Instead the US is pressuring Kiev not to negotiate at all.

Putin is fully aware that sanctions are a kind of blackmail and that ceding to them will only result in more blackmail. So if Obama wants him to change his behavior he will have to negotiate and make concessions.

So my guess would be that Obama is playing for two audiences:
- for the neocons he is going to extremes to look how far he can humiliate Russia. Obviously he doesn't care about the casualties.
- for the oil lobby he doing what he can to raise the oil price.

Once I hoped Obama would be a capable president. Nowadays I consider him a fool who very well might start World War III.