Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obama's Guantánamo decision: is there any alternative?

So the "problem" is that President Obama has ordered the closure of this blot on America's soul, and at the same time NYT has reported that Said Ali al-Shihri, a Saudi and former Guantánamo detainee, has emerged an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen. Therefore, many (especially Republicans, who seem determined not to learn anything from anything, and whose imagination has become bankrupt of everything but fear) argue, if we release the remaining 245 detainees, they may go and do the same thing.

It appears that the al-Shihri involved in bombing the US embassy in Sana'a, Yemen, in September 2008 is the same al-Shihri who was released from Guantánamo in 2007 and passed through a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia with (other) jihadis, and who may or may not have been a jihadi before his internment at Guantánamo. The Pentagon says al-Shihri trained in urban warfare in Kabul. He says he traveled to Afghanistan via Bahrain and Pakistan two weeks after 9/11 to do "relief work", was wounded in an airstrike and spent a month in hospital in Pakistan. He was detained because he was allegedly channeling "extremists" from Iran to Afghanistan, and planning to kill a writer against whom a fatwa had been declared. His release documents say he was let go because he had gone to Iran to buy carpets for his store in Saudi Arabia, and because he denied knowledge of terrorist activities. He said if he was released, he would go back to his family in Saudi Arabia, and work at his family's store. So he was released to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia claims no one who has been through its rehab program has returned to jihad, but a Saudi official says al-Shihri disappeared from the country after completing the program. However ineffective the Saudi program may be, the US is likely to have problems developing a similar program in Yemen, because the US has complained of serious security lapses in Yemen's counterterrorism measures. And why does Yemen matter? Because 100 detainees at Guantánamo are Yemeni.

If we assume the worst about al-Shihri, he was a jihadi, detained, released, rehabilitated, and returned to jihad. If we assume the best, he was a furniture dealer who wanted to buy carpets in Iran and/or undertake relief work in Afghanistan, was detained, released, rehabilitated, and joined the jihad.

Whichever way we look at it, al-Shihri's case seems like a compelling argument in favor of closing Guantánamo, not keeping it open. Going by the worst-case assumption about al-Shihri, Guantánamo has been an utter failure: despite all that the Bush regime "invested" in the "war on terror", it could not effectively prosecute the jihadi al-Shihri, nor establish with certainty that it was safe to release him or any other detainee. Meanwhile, Guantánamo's constant pissing off of Yemen and other Arab nations was a certainty, and precluded their sincere cooperation in counterterrorism operations. And going by the best-case assumption, i.e. giving al-Shihri the benefit of the doubt, it appears Guantánamo spurred him to join the jihad.

Guantánamo is like Pandora's box -- easily opened, caused a huge mess, not so easy to close (notably, among the things that came out of that box of troubles was also hope). I think it's safe to assume Obama and his administration don't think that all it takes to close Guantánamo is to give all the detainees one-way tickets home and drop them off at the airport. Detainees will have to be put through due process either in US courts or through a UN mechanism. It will be good to have the US process these people lawfully.

Critics of this decision of Obama's should set aside childish things and recognize that there is no easy way out of Guantánamo, and that Bush created a monster that can't be ignored, for even a while. Whenever Guantánamo has to be closed, it's going to be as difficult and complicated as it is now. Bush cited that reason to keep Guantánamo open, but it's also the reason to shut it down. Some people will probably end up being released who should have remained behind bars -- as in the case of al-Shihri. But governments and ordinary people worldwide will probably start trusting America again -- and supporting it. For as long as Guantánamo is staying open, it's simply not achieving what it's intended to achieve, and it's pissing off much of the world (not just Muslims, either). There is no point in its continued existence. The sooner that prison is closed, the better.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"We Are One"

Today, the US remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. as it prepares to inaugurate its first African-American president. Congratulations, America! And here's to happier times -- economic prosperity, progress, peace, and racial and political harmony.

Full text of Dr. King's speech here

Thursday, January 8, 2009

'Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era'

From a thought-provoking post in the Guardian by Avi Shlaim, Oxford professor of international relations:

I write as someone who served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I utterly reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line...

Four decades of Israeli control did incalculable damage to the economy of the Gaza Strip. With a large population of 1948 refugees crammed into a tiny strip of land, with no infrastructure or natural resources, Gaza's prospects were never bright. Gaza, however, is not simply a case of economic under-development but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development... Israel turned the people of Gaza into... a source of cheap labour and a captive market for Israeli goods. The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence.

Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Jewish settlements in occupied territories are immoral, illegal and an insurmountable obstacle to peace. They are at once the instrument of exploitation and the symbol of the hated occupation. In Gaza, the Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 in 2005 compared with 1.4 million local residents. Yet the settlers controlled 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land and the lion's share of the scarce water resources. Cheek by jowl with these foreign intruders, the majority of the local population lived in abject poverty and unimaginable misery. Eighty per cent of them still subsist on less than $2 a day...

Land-grabbing and peace-making are simply incompatible. Israel had a choice and it chose land over peace...

In January 2006, free and fair elections for the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority brought to power a Hamas-led government. Israel, however, refused to recognise the democratically elected government, claiming that Hamas is purely and simply a terrorist organisation.

America and the EU shamelessly joined Israel in ostracising and demonising the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid. A surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed.

As so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes.

Like other radical movements, Hamas began to moderate its political programme following its rise to power. From the ideological rejectionism of its charter, it began to move towards pragmatic accommodation of a two-state solution. In March 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government that was ready to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. Israel, however, refused to negotiate with a government that included Hamas.

It continued to play the old game of divide and rule between rival Palestinian factions. In the late 1980s, Israel had supported the nascent Hamas in order to weaken Fatah, the secular nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat. Now Israel began to encourage the corrupt and pliant Fatah leaders to overthrow their religious political rivals...

The war unleashed by Israel on Gaza on 27 December was the culmination of a series of clashes and confrontations with the Hamas government. In a broader sense, however, it is a war between Israel and the Palestinian people, because the people had elected the party...

The timing of the war was determined by political expediency. A general election is scheduled for 10 February and...the main contenders are looking for an opportunity to prove their toughness.

Bush readily obliged by putting all the blame for the crisis on Hamas, vetoing proposals at the UN Security Council for an immediate ceasefire and issuing Israel with a free pass to mount a ground invasion of Gaza.

As always, mighty Israel claims to be the victim of Palestinian aggression but the sheer asymmetry of power between the two sides leaves little room for doubt as to who is the real victim... The resort to brute military force is accompanied, as always, by the shrill rhetoric of victimhood and a farrago of self-pity overlaid with self-righteousness. In Hebrew this is known as the syndrome of bokhim ve-yorim, "crying and shooting".

To be sure, Hamas is not an entirely innocent party in this conflict. Denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak - terror. Militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad kept launching Qassam rocket attacks against Israeli settlements near the border with Gaza until Egypt brokered a six-month ceasefire last June. The damage caused by these primitive rockets is minimal but the psychological impact is immense, prompting the public to demand protection from its government... The figures speak for themselves. In the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire. On the other hand, in 2005-7 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.

Israel's entire record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality towards the inhabitants of Gaza. Israel also maintained the blockade of Gaza after the ceasefire came into force which, in the view of the Hamas leaders, amounted to a violation of the agreement. During the ceasefire, Israel prevented any exports from leaving the strip in clear violation of a 2005 accord, leading to a sharp drop in employment opportunities. Officially, 49.1% of the population is unemployed. At the same time, Israel restricted drastically the number of trucks carrying food, fuel, cooking-gas canisters, spare parts for water and sanitation plants, and medical supplies to Gaza. It is difficult to see how starving and freezing the civilians of Gaza could protect the people on the Israeli side of the border. But even if it did, it would still be immoral...

A wide gap separates the reality of Israel's actions from the rhetoric of its spokesmen. It was not Hamas but the IDF that broke the ceasefire. It did so by a raid into Gaza on 4 November that killed six Hamas men. Israel's objective is not just the defence of its population but the eventual overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza by turning the people against their rulers. And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year-old blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza, now 1.5 million, to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

No amount of military escalation can buy Israel immunity from rocket attacks from the military wing of Hamas. Despite all the death and destruction that Israel has inflicted on them, they kept up their resistance and they kept firing their rockets. This is a movement that glorifies victimhood and martyrdom. There is simply no military solution to the conflict... The only way for Israel to achieve security is not through shooting but through talks with Hamas, which has repeatedly declared its readiness to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with the Jewish state within its pre-1967 borders for 20, 30, or even 50 years. Israel has rejected this offer for the same reason it spurned the Arab League peace plan of 2002, which is still on the table: it involves concessions and compromises.

This brief review of Israel's record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state... A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism - the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel's real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A poem for the new year

Yesterday, I received this poetic wish for the new year from an American friend: "May the new year bring peace like rain dropping gently on our wounded world."
I picked a poem to start off the new year on a peaceful note. It's by the Punjabi sufi saint-poet Bulley Shah, who lived from the late 17th to the mid-18th century. He was of Uzbek heritage, was born in Bahawalpur, and lived and died in Kasur (both cities are in what is now the Pakistani Punjab). Bulley Shah wrote in his poems that no amount of learning was useful unless people looked inside themselves. Like other sufis, he saw no distinction between the God of one person and another -- for him there was no "false God", and Hindus and Muslims were one.
Well, the poem I chose is "Ki jaana main kaun". Here it is in the Nastaliq script, if you can read it (I can't). Here's an English transliteration-cum-translation. Below, I'm posting videos of three vastly different interpretations by Junoon, Rabbi, and an unidentified singer who's not identified.
Below is Junoon's sufi-rock "Bulleya" from their album Parvaaz. No comments on the video, but musically speaking, this is by far my most preferred version:

Next is Rabbi Shergill's pop version. I included it because the video contains many scenes of Mumbai - the Taj Mahal hotel, which was the site of a terrorist siege from November 26-28, 2008, the Gateway of India and waterfront across the road from the Taj, Churchgate station, and parts of Marine Drive including the Nariman Point stretch where the Oberoi and Trident hotels are. Of course, the video was made long before the recent attacks, which only goes to show how iconic the locations are where the terrorists struck. Also, Rabbi's version is more complete than Junoon's abbreviated text.

And last is this unidentified singer in what I'm guessing is a Pakistani TV studio. Personally I'm not a big fan of what I call "sugam sangeet" orchestration, although I like singer's voice. I also included it because it illustrates how differently people can interpret the same text, and because this version includes some lines missing in the two preceding versions:
Chal Bulleya, othey chaliye
jithae sarae annae
na koi saadee jaat pachhaney
thae na koi saanu manney
Let's go, Bulleya, let's go to a place
where everyone is blind,
where nobody knows our lineage
and nobody judges us by it.