The Arab Weekly

Trump's Tweets of Anti-Muslim Videos Set the Stage for Jerusalem Speech

Some political events are volcanic; others are like a slow-burning fuse.

US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a political volcano but days earlier he lit an interfaith cultural fuse by retweeting three anti-Muslim videos originally posted by a fringe far-right British group.

One of the three videos merits particular attention because it appears to assert the inherent incompatibility between Islam and Christianity.

The second of the video series tweeted by the Britain First group’s Jayda Fransen is frozen on the image of a heavyset man holding a demurely white-gowned, blue-cloaked statue. A single sentence, presumably appended by Fransen, offers a stark indication of the content: “Muslim Destroys a Statue of the Virgin Mary!” Even those who do not click to play the video will get the gut-wrenching message.

The New York Times, which examined the video, said it is 4 years old and the man is an extremist Syrian cleric, Abo Omar Ghabra.

Ghabra’s actions fit a pattern set by the Taliban’s dynamiting of the monumental Buddahs of Bamiyan in 2001 and other conspicuous attempts by Muslim extremist groups to destroy representational art.

The more dangerous message sought to be conveyed by the video and its wide dissemination by Trump is the implacable hostility between Islam and Christianity. The video is meant to intensify the struggle between the iconoclastic upstart faith founded by Prophet Mohammad in seventh-century Arabia and the older religion that shaped Western civilisation.

How? There is a great and terrible power in seeing a bearded, apparently Muslim man carelessly, even triumphantly smashing an icon of the Christian faith. It is even more disturbing that he is seen destroying a symbol of female virtue, an inspirational figure for Christians across the world.

Some might say the video and its retweeting are a slightly more spiritual version of the inflammatory cover featured by a mass-market, politically conservative Polish magazine in February 2016. That didn’t get as much attention or traction as this video. (Trump didn’t retweet it and he was still considered a bizarre, improbable presidential candidate.)

Even so, as this columnist noted in this newspaper at the time, the wSieci magazine cover sent a dangerous and powerful message at the height of European concerns over the influx of Muslim refugee men. It bore the words “The Islamic Rape of Europe” and showed a white woman wrapped in the European Union’s blue flag, her mouth open in a Munch-like scream while three pairs of dark-skinned male hands pull at her hair, clothes, waist and arms.

Both the magazine and the retweeted video have the same subtext: the threat of Muslim sexual dominance over the Christian West. But Trump’s second retweeted video also taps into something else. It reinforces the expectation of a decisive coming struggle between Islam and Christianity.

Trump’s former chief strategist at the White House, Stephen Bannon, is known to think along these lines. In 2014, he delivered a Skype address to a Vatican conference hosted by conservative Catholic group the Institute for Human Dignity. He declared that the impending conflict needed all Christians to join together as a new “church militant.” That was the only way, Bannon said, to “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting.”

The video retweeted by Trump is supposed to illustrate that “barbarity.” For, to smash a statue revered by another elicits a visceral reaction.

The retweeted video certainly does convey a dangerous threat, albeit at the level of a provincial cleric in northern Syria. The video tries to portray such behaviour as an article of the Islamic faith when it is anything but. Practices such as Ghabra’s are not condoned by stories about the Prophet’s own actions.

When he entered the pre-Islamic pagan shrine Kaaba in Mecca, the Prophet is said to have destroyed all the images of gods but allowed a painting of the Virgin and infant Jesus to remain. There are varying accounts of how he protected that painting. Some say he covered it with his hands; others that he directed it to be left intact.

The painting perished when a fire destroyed the building in 683, barely half a century after it was saved.

That story offers not just a wholesome but a holistic perspective of the Muslim faith’s approach to other people’s icons.

Instead of Brokering Peace, Jared Kushner Keeps Guzzling Jet Fuel on His Way to the Middle East

Jared Kushner has made another quick tour of the Middle East with the goal of launching renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law was joined by Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations; and the US Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Habib Powell, who was born in Cairo to Coptic Egyptian parents and speaks fluent Arabic. She also served in the White House and the State Department under former President George W. Bush.

Kushner met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — their meeting was described as “productive” by a Palestinian spokesman — and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — their meeting was described as “effective” by an Israeli spokesman.

While they were in the neighbourhood, Kushner and his team also met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the same day that news broke of an impending US aid cut to Egypt, as well as with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with Israeli-Palestinian peace at the top of every agenda.

Amid the flurry of activity, I have one pointed question for America’s most powerful son-in-law: Who do you think you are fooling? The odds of an Israeli- Palestinian peace breakthrough are as close to zero as odds can get.

Consider the situations of the main decision-makers: Abbas is unpopular, politically isolated, at odds with Hamas and, at age 82, ailing. The jockeying for who will replace him is well under way. Netanyahu is the latest in a long line of Israeli politicians to face possible indictment over corruption. Neither leader is in any position to make a bold or courageous move towards peace. In fact, to salvage his political hide, Netanyahu has embraced Israel’s extremist right-wing fringe.

Trump is facing historically low popularity ratings — fewer than four out of ten Americans say they approve of his job as president — and a criminal investigation of his own related to accusations that his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 US elections.

Add to these problems the fact that Trump does not have the focus or depth of knowledge necessary to bargain with such wily survivors as Netanyahu and Abbas. It is almost laughable to imagine Trump in the role of Jimmy Carter at Camp David, shuttling in a golf cart between the cottages of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to hammer out the details of peace. (It is, however, easy to imagine Trump in a golf cart.)

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The Challenge of Stopping Online Radicalization

Are we doing enough to stop radicalisation? Like many Muslims, I returned home from taraweeh prayers June 3 and was confronted with the images of yet another act of terror. This time it took place at a location I had been to a few days earlier.

Moments like this lead us to ask: Why do they do this and how do we stop them? The media go into overdrive, politicians issue statements and the terrorists’ supporters, I suppose, sit back and enjoy the chaos. On social media the good, the bad and the very ugly come out. Sometimes the incident unites but very often it is used to score points.

People rightly say that something needs to be done but what is that something? Questions are inevitably asked about how much other Muslims or the security services knew. Could this have been stopped on the night? Are we doing enough to stop this radicalisation in Britain’s mosques and online?

We already know that at least one of the killers was confronted by his community and reported to the authorities for his dangerously extreme views. Where and how did this happen? How much radicalisation happens in the average British mosque?

The groups involved are usually physically on the fringes of mainstream society. It is in the online world that instructions for engaging in jihadist madness are published and it is there that a recruit is more likely to be groomed.

When I say groomed I am not talking about an extremist with long-held radical views. Mostly, I am referring to someone who has gone on a very quick online journey from inquisitive and mildly opinionated to locked-in zealot. We have seen this often. Young, talented people drop everything after online flirtation with radicalism and set off to join the death cult of the Islamic State (ISIS).

So, if we are to engage online, how is this to be done? How does one reach the young Muslim who is clearly searching for something but has not signed up to the ideology of hate?

One approach I recently came across was a campaign aimed at people aged 15 to 25 in Morocco and the wider MENA region. This online campaign — called “Where do we start?” — was a reaction to a very particular demographic — disaffected young Arabs living in the aftermath of the “Arab spring” revolts of 2011.

During the uprisings, a generation of young people used non-violent protest to become agents of change but their governments’ failure to deliver concrete economic, social and political reforms deflated the youthful sense of optimism. For some, it began to seem as if the possibilities of all non-violent avenues of change had been exhausted.

In this environment, violent extremist organisations, ranging from ISIS to local groups, extended their operational and communications reach. For some young people, such groups offer the only credible vehicle for change and one in which they can take part. Such groups give the youth a sense of urgency and agency.

“Where do we start?” developed a campaign to offer those people an alternative. It is a positive, practical and meaningful way to enable young Arabs to help change their worlds, both on the micro and macro level. The campaign curated and amplified a network of activists across the MENA region, including Ahmed Naguib, founder of the Egyptian NGO Schools Without Walls, and Shyrine Ziadeh, founder of the Ramallah Ballet Centre.

The campaign helped the output from six online influencers reach 4 million users and achieve more than 1 million views on Facebook and YouTube. About 90% of those who saw the content were in the target age range.

Early results have been encouraging. For many, connecting with inspirational role models led them to create a network of like-minded young people. They were moved to share their thoughts and hopes of success in building civil society.

The networks have the potential to grow and spread further their message of positivity over hate.

At a time when many claim that the only voices chosen to represent young Muslims are negative, this was a clear example of the alternative narrative. Sometimes, countering Islamist extremism is not just about faith and scripture. The online influencer does not take away the need to challenge perversions of theology or for the authorities to monitor online grooming and hate. However, it does offer something concrete and hopeful to the young seeker, something that can divert him from the path of death and destruction.

This campaign may not have swayed the killers in Manchester and London, for they were too far gone with their hatred, but an extremist is not born that way. He embarks on a journey that could have many entry and exit points, many different twists and turns.

Some young people respond well to a simple message of hope, one that says violence is not the only way to change the world and that, most importantly, you are not alone.

Erdogan's Trip to the U.S. Produced Very Little

The much-anticipated meeting between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended as it began, a mere blip.

It was the Turkish president who raised expectations when he described the agenda by saying “our talks will no longer be about commas but with full stops.” The allusion was to the idea that, what he could not achieve with former US President Barack Obama, he would seek to conclude with his successor.

The meeting took no longer than 22 minutes but, even with a working lunch with the delegations added, there were question marks about full stops. Nothing of that sort emerged from the talks. Ankara is only left with an anticlimax.

In many ways, Erdogan went to Washington with a mission impossible: There was no way to make Trump revoke his decision, prompted resolutely by the Pentagon, to arm the Syrian Kurds. All he could do was grumble in a news conference about it, in subtly threatening terms.

At times Trump grinned nervously and many took it for granted that his mind was much more on the controversy of leaking sensitive intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov than feeling sympathy for his Turkish counterpart. It appeared that the talks were rather devoid of meaning.

Erdogan was certainly aware how tightly squeezed he was. For months he had protested about the role of the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and Trump’s decision had pre-empted much of Erdogan’s expectations.

On his way to Washington, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi and in Beijing. The Russian president inflicted even more wounds. As Erdogan stepped onto the plane heading for the United States, Putin said the Syrian Kurds had his country’s full support, no matter what.

It was clear that this double blow paralysed Erdogan’s arguments and offers. This also showed how Turkey’s erratic policies in Syria helped somewhat align the regional policies of Moscow and Washington, specifically on the extermination of ISIS and other jihadist forces as the highest priority.

Erdogan knew perfectly well that the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, whom he blames for inciting the attempted coup in Turkey last July, from the United States was a half-hearted demand. He likely believes the cleric, his formidable foe, better remain in the United States for political reasons. The controversy will help Erdogan conduct as fierce a campaign in 2019 to cement his autocracy. Erdogan bets on the prospect that the process of extradition will take years.

The US federal court case of the Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab, which implicates Erdogan’s family and close circles in organised crime allegations in bypassing an Iranian embargo is really Erdogan’s main headache but even there he knows that he has enough time to try to have the case watered down.

There was debate among Turkey analysts, after Trump’s decision to prefer Kurdish militia to Turkish armed forces, about why Erdogan did not postpone his visit to the White House. Some argued that by doing so Ankara would have sent the message to the Americans that these Turks must have a reason to keep tensions high.

Erdogan, though, did not turn a hair. This explains why, after all, his visit was a success from his vantage point. This may also explain what he meant by “full stop.” Soon after his highly debated referendum victory, marked as “shady” in the official reports by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Erdogan deliberately launched a global tour simply aimed at the legitimacy of the result. He went to Russia, India and China, meeting with top leaders.

Erdogan was emboldened by a congratulatory phone call from Trump the day after the vote and the visit to Washington was simply payback and a crowning moment that he, after all, was to be seen as a recognised leader to do business with. So, the photo-op in the White House was added to those from Russia, India and China.

If there is any dimension of success, this is it. All those analysts who claimed much ado about nothing may be missing a point: It was much ado about one thing — a continuity of a leadership, despite high criticism.

The tour for legitimacy will come — to use again the term of Erdogan’s — to its full stop when he reaches his final destination: To meet with leaders at the NATO summit as well as the top figures of the European Union. It will be all about mutually polite smiles, however false, and weak handshakes, frozen in snapshots.

For the moment, Erdogan seems satisfied. When it comes to Turkey and its interests, well, that’s an entirely different story.

Faked Terrorist Attacks Are a Dangerous Development

From tragedy to sordid farce, terrorism is metamorphosing before our eyes. Until recently, an attack was meant to serve brutal, if basic, functions. These included terrifying a city or a country and serving as a propaganda vehicle for the terrorists’ political, social or cultural agenda. Now, the terrorist attack may be mutating into a speculative investment for monetary gain. The implications are worth considering.

On April 11, three bomb blasts hit a bus carrying popular German football team Borussia Dortmund to an important match. Three letters at the scene led officials to focus the investigation on two suspects “from the Islamist spectrum.”

A Borussia Dortmund player and an escorting policeman were injured; the match was rescheduled and eventually played under massive security precautions. Another football match in Munich was also subject to heightened security.

The sequence of events was greeted with anxiety and trepidation by fans and well-wishers of Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s most successful football clubs. Many wondered if terrorists would increasingly target sports entities and venues across Europe, a continent divided by much but united by the language of football.

After all, targets have generally been chosen for being vulnerable or symbolically significant. An adored football team is right up there with the Bataclan, the Nice beach, the Berlin Christmas market and the British Parliament. Then, with the arrest of a German-Russian man only identified as Sergej W., an extraordinary truth emerged.

The dual-national had audaciously sought to make money off the attack on Borussia Dortmund. He had faked the incident to appear like a terrorist attack, which is to say an act of violence that could cause mass injury, loss of life and considerable damage to property, followed by confusion and a claimed connection to radical Islamists.

On the day of the attack, Sergej W. purchased several options in Borussia Dortmund stock, betting heavily on a fall in its share price. The coincidence of share options purchases on the same day as the bomb blasts led police to Sergej W. and his cynical game plan was revealed.

As it happened, he didn’t briefly benefit monetarily either. “A significant share price drop could have been expected if a player had been seriously injured or even killed as a result of the attack,” prosecutors said. Neither of those events came to pass.

Surely this case, with its bizarre motivation and outrageous fakery, should merit no more than a shrug and a platitude? Something along the lines of “truth is stranger than fiction” should do nicely before everyone — police, press and public — returns to contemplating the real terrorist threats that menace Europe.

On the contrary. The faked terrorist attack is a dangerous development. A petty crook notes the knee-jerk way in which we respond to terrorist attacks today and calculates that it will be easy to misdirect the police towards unspecified Islamist troublemakers. This raises the possibility of people committing crimes of passion or for profit and laying out a false trail of clues that point to jihadist involvement. Even worse, the Islamic State or whichever jihadist group is implicated from afar may opportunistically claim responsibility.

Even if, as happened with Sergej W., the perpetrator is unmasked, clues that point to radical extremists will waste police resources and spread considerable panic. There is always the possibility that a faked terrorist attack might be seen as the real thing.

The implications are disturbing.

Turkey Deeply Divided After Vote

Turkey’s vote for a strong executive presidency has left the country divided and at odds with Europe at a time when it is embroiled in the Syrian conflict and seeking to balance good ties with both Russia and the United States.

The April 16 referendum win gives the president powers to control the budget, appoint ministers, dismiss parliament, declare a state of emergency and rule by decree.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he needs the powers to revive the sluggish economy and overcome terrorism threats from the Islamic State (ISIS), Kurdish separatists and US-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Victory for Erdogan was achieved by a narrow margin: 51.4% voted “yes” and 48.6% “no”.

Voting patterns reflected the deep divisions within Turkish society between the more cosmopolitan, educated, wealthy and secular big cities and Aegean coastal regions, which voted against the changes, and the more pious, conservative Anatolian hinterland, which has formed the bedrock of Erdogan support for nearly two decades.

Secular Turks fear Erdogan will use his new powers to further the Islamisation of society, restrict freedoms and crack down further still on dissent.

The opposition said vote counting rules were changed and ballot boxes stuffed with “yes” votes. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the “lack of equal opportunities, one-sided media coverage and limitations on fundamental freedoms created an unlevel playing field” for the referendum.

The president said the OSCE should “know its place”. Erdogan would have taken heart though from a call to congratulate him from US President Donald Trump.

Whatever the personal chemistry between the populist presidents, the countries with the two biggest armies in NATO are divided by US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, the US refusal to hand over Gulen and Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia.

With Europe Erdogan is likely to have a tougher task after accusing its leaders of behaving like Nazis.

However, tensions with Europe are likely to boost Erdogan’s popularity at home and strengthen his position. The president said in his victory speech he could call another referendum on whether Turkey should abandon efforts to join the European Union. He also said he could order a vote bringing back the death penalty. The European Union said that would mean the end of Turkey’s entry bid.

Erdogan has some leverage with the European Union and could carry out his threat to abandon a deal to stop the 3 million Syrians in Turkey from heading to Europe.

Turkish troops have been blocked in Syria and prevented from taking part in the US-backed push to take the ISIS capital Raqqa.

At home, opposition leaders have taken heart from the narrow referendum result.

“This large an opposition is hard for Erdogan to ignore,” wrote Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

“The biggest risk for Erdogan is that voters will hold him personally responsible: By making himself the country’s sole decision-maker, he has left them no one to blame but himself.”

Hezbollah, Israel Brace for All-Out Conflict

The renewed focus on Iran by the Trump administration has spurred an outbreak of sabre-rattling in Lebanon and Israel and raised concerns that the calm that has existed along the border for more than a decade may be coming to an end.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has warned that “there will be no red lines” in the next war with Israel and threatened to strike the Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev desert and ammonia plants in Haifa with devastating results should Israel attack Lebanon.

In response, an Israeli government minister promised that “all Lebanon would be hit” if Hezbollah attacked the Israeli home front.

Since the last war between Hezbollah and Israel ended in August 2006, the border between the two countries has enjoyed its longest period of calm since the mid- 1960s but the inconclusive end to the 2006 conflict, when Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill, has long fuelled expectations of a second round.

Even so, the calm endured — until the 2011 “Arab spring” upheaval and the war in Syria drew attention away from the Lebanon-Israel border.

The anti-Iran (and by extension anti-Hezbollah) rhetoric emanating from the White House has raised fears that another conflict may be building up.

However, both parties know that the scale of a new war will dwarf the 2006 conflict, a reality that has helped ensure a mutual deterrence.

Hezbollah has expanded enormously in terms of manpower, weaponry and experience in the last decade. Israel has retrained its army since its 2006 debacle and acquired new weapons and technologies.

The traditional theatre of conflict has long been limited to south Lebanon and northern Israel. Next time, the entire territories of both countries will be the battleground.

Israel will face barrages of missiles raining on its cities and towns as well as Hezbollah fighters storming across the border and possibly infiltrating by sea.

Lebanon will likely witness a level of destruction unseen since its 1975-90 civil war. Some Israeli strategists argue that in the next conflict Israel should treat all Lebanon as the enemy, rather than just Hezbollah, and target the trappings of the state such as infrastructure and the Lebanese Army.

“A war against Lebanon, which will inflict heavy damage on all of the country’s infrastructures, will spark an international outcry for a ceasefire after three days rather than after 33 days like in the second Lebanon war,” Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, wrote recently in the Yedioth Ahranoth daily.

“It is only from a really short war that Israel will be able to emerge victorious and without serious damage to its home front.”

The flaw in Eiland’s analysis is contained in the second sentence. It presupposes that Hezbollah, cowed by the destruction unleashed on Lebanon, will simply stop fighting or bow to political pressure to halt the combat. But it is not in Hezbollah’s character to hand Israel victory on a plate. The Party of God has an interest in extending a war for as long as it can.

By prolonging the destruction in Lebanon, it would hope to foster international criticism of Israel, hasten diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire on terms perhaps more beneficial to Hezbollah and allow the organisation more time to inflict damage on the Israeli military and Israel’s home front.

Israel’s population is unlikely to tolerate a war that brings normal life to a halt for weeks, placing tremendous pressure on the Israeli government to end the conflict.

The focus on Hezbollah in recent years has been on the party’s intervention in Syria rather than its 3-decade struggle against Israel. But Hezbollah’s leadership is acutely aware that an Israeli government may conclude that there will never be a better time to launch an offensive against its old enemy than while Hezbollah is fighting in Syria.

Hezbollah is still very focused on the front with Israel with many of its top fighters, especially anti-tank missile teams and rocket units, remaining in Lebanon rather than being deployed to Syria.

For two months, plain-clothes Hezbollah units have been conducting a thorough but low-key survey of the Israeli border, taking extensive measurements of terrain, including slope gradients, and photographing Israel’s new defences on the other side of the frontier fence, sources in south Lebanon say.

The survey, which is part operational planning and part psychological needling of Israeli troops, underlines that Hezbollah’s anti-Israel activities have not slowed despite the party’s heavy commitments in Syria.

Both Israel and Hezbollah repeatedly say that they do not want a war and that mutual deterrence remains strong. However, Israel has pushed the envelope more than Hezbollah in recent years with assassinations of key Hezbollah figures and air strikes against suspected arms depots or convoys carrying new weapons from Syria.

Hezbollah has been careful to tailor its reprisal operations so they do not upset the balance of terror but if another war does break out, it is likely to be the result of a miscalculation by one side or the other that quickly spirals out of control before either party can dial it back.


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