Moderate, extremist and other words that skew the news

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2016 having turned out to be the year of the unpredictable, there’s been a brief spasm of soulsearching in the news media. Maybe one question we might like to address is the often unconscious bias in the words we use.

TV crews film Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip in 2009. Photo: Tony Cross

Are journalists really an out-of-touch metropolitan elite?

Well, to some extent, yes. Even if most journalists are not the well-paid celebrities that Brexiteers or Trump voters love to hate, we are educated, middle-class people who share the outlook of a certain social grouping and we can mistake that outlook for “objectivity”.

We’ve all heard those reports where the journalist, often in response to a question that invites them to be the spokesperson for a whole population, tells us “People think …”

Who are those people? Usually they’re the people we work with, the people we had dinner with last night, perhaps the politicians and pundits we’ve been interviewing, a very specific milieu whose opinions and prejudices are generally similar to those of the reporter.

For the reporter all reasonable people think this way – even if the equivalent milieu thought very differently on the same questions 50 or 100 years ago – and this outlook tends to be mistaken for the natural order of things.

This internalised bias is reflected in our coverage of events, our choice of subject matter and the terminology used in media that pride themselves on their objectivity.

Here are some terms I feel are widely abused:

Moderate/extremist: Do you consider any of your own opinions extreme? No, and nobody else thinks theirs are, either. Dubbing someone “extreme”, and even more so an “extremist”, puts them beyond the pale, situating them in relation to a consensus that you have not bothered to define and in general reflects your own prejudices. Was the Iraq War moderate in its aims, conduct or achievement? Did it enjoy majority support, either in the countries who waged it or in the Middle East? But how often have you seen Tony Blair or George Bush described as extreme? The consensus in the average newsroom has been confounded on several occasions in 2016. I’m not going to argue that Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson or George Osborne are leading us to a brighter dawn. But are they extreme? Or are just the first three extreme and BJ and George moderates fallen into bad company? A more specific description of a political, religious or philosophical stance is more accurate and less value-loaded. Of course, we need a short-hand description of movements to the left or the right of the mainstream – far left, hard left, far right and hard right don’t carry so much implicit judgement.

Centre-right: Here, as I remember it, is how this term slipped into the political lexicon. Once upon a time the British Conservatives, Republicans, Gaullists etc were just plain right-wing and nobody thought any more about it. In the 1980s, led by Thatcher and Reagan, the mainstream right moved right. The mainstream left moved right as well, leading commentators to describe the Clintons, Blairs etc more or less accurately as centre-left. Then people without much political culture started saying “If there’s a centre-left there must be a centre-right” and relabelling the mainstream right parties “centre-right”. “Centre” had become one of those approval words, like “moderate”. But those parties hadn’t moved to the centre at all. There’s nothing particularly centre about today’s Republicans or Tories. François Fillon, the mainstream right’s candidate in next year’s presidential election in France, wants to scrap 500,000 public-sector jobs and thinks French colonialism was a sort of prototype for the Alliance française. What’s centrist about that?

International community: What is this entity? Who’s in and who’s out? Do you qualify by GDP, colonial history, skill in English? Is it established by UN votes? Or is it a way to make the opinions and interests of the world’s richest and most powerful countries sound like just plan common sense?

Reporters at Paris’s Bataclan concert hall, the scene of one the November 2015 Paris attacks Photo: Tony Cross

Terrorist: OK, this is an old chestnut. Terrorism is a bit like populism, we know it exists but we can’t really define it. Some people use it to describe non-state political violence but the origin of the term lies in its use by the French state after the revolution and virtually every politician has at some time or another labelled some government or other “terrorist”. We tend not to us the word to describe anyone whose actions we condone. Not many people nowadays use it for World War II resistance movements, although the German army certainly did. And we all know about “freedom fighters”, although we may not agree as to whether they operated in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba or, in any case, in what historical period they did so. I see that the BBC styleguide advises “its use can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding”, preferring “words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as bomber, attacker, gunman, kidnapper, insurgent and militant”, advice that is more honoured in the breach than in the observance, as far as I can see.

Militant: Which brings me to “militant”. I blame the south Asians for this. In the 70s and 80s, as I remember it, we had “trade union militants”, who may not have had a very good press but were rarely accused of shooting managers or bombing factories. Then there were quite a few armed groups active in south Asia and the media there tended to refer to them as “militants”. That seeped into BBC and other British coverage, later spreading to other English-language media. It’s true, so far as I can make out, that the roots of “militant” are the same as those of “military” but the former term has meant “combative” in a non-military sense for some time. The church militant is not exclusively that involved in the crusades, the militancy of the British miners was not armed resistance. And what is an “anti-abortion militant”? A “pro-life” activist or a marksman who shoots doctors at family planning clinics? In France we have the added complication that the French word militant just means activist, leading to all sorts of confusion in translation (I’m looking at you, AFP!). Ambiguous and best avoided, in my opinion.

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Turkey turns to Russia amid allegations of US coup complicity

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Turkey is executing a dramatic change in foreign policy, aligning itself with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in part because of the US’s and the EU’s reaction to the purge that followed the 15 July coup attempt. Ruling party leaders say the state of emergency will not last more than three months and that the Kurdish-based HDP will not be left out of national unity efforts. We’ll see about that!

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Atatürk’s mausoleum behind minarets and Ankara rooftops Photo: Tony Cross

Ankara 27-28 July 2016

Accompanying the mayor I meet on Wednesday evening is someone who’s introduced as an advisor to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim – another one who doesn’t want to give his name, but for different reasons to the others I’ve spoken to – along with a couple of gentlemen who apparently have something to do with intelligence and defence.

They say that a key Gülenist, whom they name as Adil Öksüz, was captured at the nearby Akinci airbase during the coup attempt.

Other Gülenists have apparently come forward to confess, including another prime ministerial adviser, known as Fuat Avni, and are spilling a certain amount of beans on the movement.

Avni’s statements led to the arrest of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military aide de camp Colonel Ali Yazici, they say, and that has led to other top aides, past and present.

However highly placed they are, the organisation’s cell structure means that defectors can’t name a lot of names, if the information I’m given is correct.

Cells are led by a “big brother”, who reports to a bigger brother, and they all use code names.

Given that the AKP worked with the Gülenists for many years, there must surely be many members in the party, I point out.

They agree and say that an “in-depth investigation” is taking place and that some have already come forward.

The party seems ready to forgive individuals who were attracted by the movement’s ideals but were not aware of the coup plot.

Gülenists ready to explain themselves to the media having always been in short supply – even more so at the moment – I am not in a position to say what those ideals really are.

AKP people say that Gülen claims to be the new Mahdi, who will redeem Islam, and that the movement is a threat wherever it has schools and other interests, ie a number of countries in central Asia, Africa and, as it happens, the United States.

Relations with US under threat

The government found that the US was slow to condemn the coup and this, combined with its criticism of the post-coup purge and its apparent reluctance to extradite Gülen from his Pennsylvania compound, has given rise to accusations that it was aware of and supported the coup attempt.

If Washington refuses extradition it will be taken as proof of involvement, the adviser says, and that will mean a complete change in relations between Turkey, a key member of Nato, and the US.

There were already accusations that Gülen is a CIA agent and my informants seem to believe them, one of them throwing in a claim of German involvement for good measure.

EU criticism of the Turkish government’s reaction to the purge have also been poorly received and there is already evidence of a major realignment of Turkish foreign policy, which would mean Turkey joining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to establish a bloc to rival the West on the world stage.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek on Tuesday announced that Erdogan would visit Russia on 9 August, while he himself was on a visit to Moscow along with Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci.

Russia is, of course, strictly non-judgemental about the reaction to the coup and has lifted a damaging embargo imposed when the Turks shot down one of its jets over Syria last year.

Even before the coup attempt there were indications that Ankara may normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad, a prospect that stunned Syrian rebel groups.

Is military weakened? Will national unity last? The AKP line

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Ak party vice-president Mehdi Eker Photo: Tony Cross

AKP vice-president Mehdi Eker refuses to “speculate” on what will happen if Gülen is not extradited when we meet him at the party’s huge headquarters in Ankara.

“We know, and are very sure – we have a lot of evidence – that Fetullah Gülen is the leader of this organisation, as it has been confessed by many members who were involved in the military coup,” he says. “We have conveyed these files to the US. President Erdoğan called [US President Barack] Obama and asked for the extradition of Gülen, and PM Yıldırım also had a phone conversation with [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and asked him officially.”

So “an ally and friendly country” is bound to “act according to international law and according to bilateral relations on this issue”, he declares.

Eker is defensive on defence.

The 8,000-plus personnel dishonourably discharged is a small percentage of the huge Turkish armed forces, he points out, but has to concede that then over 40 per cent of generals and admirals fired could be damaging.

“The Turkish army is traditionally very strong and powerful,” he says with masterly understatement. “Of course, as far as they get the support from the people and administration, they will recover. I have no doubt whatsoever about it. In previous coup attempts, for example in 1971 there was again a coup attempt, it recovered. It will again recover. No problem!”

He confirms reports that responsibility for the gendarmerie and the coastguard will be transferred from the defence to the interior ministry and that the polie may be given heavy weapons.

The Kurds – the elephant not in the national unity room

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HDP co-vice-president Saruhan Öluc Photo: Tony Cross

Like the CHP’s Tezcan, he is enthusiastic about the post-coup spirit of national unity.

“The people are all together, hand in hand,” Eker declares. “All the people from different statuses, different backgrounds, different parties all stay together.”

But one party was absent from Erdogan’s meeting with opposition leaders on Monday – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

When I met HDP vice-president Saruhan Öluc in Istanbul on Tuesday, he was worried that this meant the formation of a nationalist bloc against Kurdish rights.

To read my interview with Saruhan Öluc click here

But Eker, who is himself a Kurd and represents a constituency in Diyarbakir where the conflict with armed Kurdish groups rages on, insists that the HDP will be involved in future talks.

“As long as they take a firm stance against coups and any other anti-democratic affairs, we are together. They are elected by people so they are legitimate.”

The gendarmerie being deployed in rural areas, their transfer to the interior minister may mean more involvement in security operations in the south-east.

Torture hasn’t happened but, if it has, it will be punished

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Human rights lawyer Sercan Aran Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier today lawyer Sercan Aran told us that soldiers detained since the coup claims to have been abused, tortured and even raped.

Some had been deprived of food for three days, others housed in stables or kept in stress positions for the same length of time.

A general said he had been sodomised by a police truncheon – one suspects an element of resentment from the lower ranks – but refused to file a complaint because of the shame he would feel if his family knew.

There was evidence of other similar cases, Aran said, and lawyers had faced obstruction and physical assault while trying to represent detained soldiers.

To read my report for RFI on torture allegations click here

“Everything is done under the rule of law,” Eker insists, describing Amnesty International’s report on the torture allegations as biased.

But the charges will be investigated, he says, and if any cases come to light “of course they will be punished”.

Prosecutors have been given exceptional powers, including the right to search premises, including lawyers’ offices, without a judge’s warrant and the right to seize documents from lawyers.

Plotters, including officers who tried to assassinate Erdogan, are still on the loose, Eker says, so exceptional measures are justified.

But, he adds in reference to France’s eight-month state of emergency, Turkey’s will probably not last more than three months.

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How far will Turkey’s post-coup purge go?

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Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious at foreign criticism of the crackdown that has followed the 15 July coup attempt. What does anyone expect after a military power grab? he wants to know. So has the West been holier-than-thou its reaction? And have innocent people been swept up in the purge?

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The road between the Turkish parliament and armed forces headquarters where civilians confronted soldiers during the coup atttempt Photo: Tony Cross

 

Ankara 27 July 2016

Her husband said he’d divorce her when she was suspended from her job teaching in Ankara school.

“I never knew I was living with a Gülenist,” he said.

He was joking. In fact, they both thought it was pretty funny.

“I laughed,” she told us in a local office of education union Eğitim Sen. “I thought it was a joke because it seemed like a joke and funny for a leftist and democratic person such as myself to be a part of such a frame.”

But the next day the seriousness of her situation was beginning to sink in. She could lose her job. She could be labelled a coup supporter for life. Even if she is reinstated, the suspicion could remain.

This teacher, who didn’t want her name given, was one of about 21,000 teachers in public and private schools to be suspended.

Only 88 of them are members of Egitim Sen, which does not recruit in the private sector, but Ankara organiser Kamuran Karaca was amazed to find any.

The union is resolutely secular, campaigning against religion in schools, and its activists tend to be left-wing, while Fehtullah Gülen, the man the government accuses of being behind the failed putsch, is a right-wing Islamist who, according to his opponents, works within Turkey’s secular democracy in order to subvert it.

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Karuman Karaca of Egitim Sen Photo: Tony Cross

The union is no stranger to legal action, however.

Six of its members are currently awaiting trial, because of their role in strikes and their support for Kurdish rights, according to the union – one of them having been charged since the coup attempt.

The evidence against the suspended members appears to be mainly that they have taken loans from an allegedly Gülenist-run bank, Bank Asya, or have bought books or office supplies from shops believed to be run by the movement.

Karaca points out that, since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a long time worked with the Gülen movement, many of its members must have done the same.

“We are concerned that there is a tendency to regard the oppositional segments of society as putschist as well,” he remarks.

Lazmi Özgen’s shares that fear.

He’s an organiser for the Kesk public-sector trade union, 32 of whose members have been in prison since January for offences he says are linked to their union activism.

Over 50,000 public-sector workers were suspended within two days of the coup attempt. So how did the authorities know who to pick?

It is common knowledge that the lists already existed, Özgen claims. Tens of thousands of public employees had been illegally profiled “Gülenist, separationist, Alevi, Atheist, secular” and so on.

The teacher we met mentioned that she was an Alevi, a religious minority that was often persecuted in the Ottoman era and whose followers tends to have anti-establishment opinions.

To read my report for RFI Turkey’s purge becoming witch-hunt, activists click here

Erdogan angered by purge criticisms

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Taxi driver Ahmet, who confronted troops and tool the wounded to hospital on 15 July Photto: Tony Cross

The scale of the purge, in the public sector, the armed forces, the media and industry, has given rise to expressions of concern in Europe and the US, which in turn has infuriated Erdogan.

AKP supporters point out that France has had a state of emergency for eight months because of a series of terror attacks, which for all their gravity were not an attempt to seize power by arms by people involved in a longstanding conspiratorial network.

Of course, France hasn’t suspended more than 50,000 people from their jobs, detained thousands of soldiers and given prosecutors the right to search lawyers’ offices and seize documents.

And Erdogan was already well down the road to authoritarianism before the failed putsch, building a megalomaniacal presidential palace, effectively taking political power into his own hands, pushing out prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu for being a potential rival, purging the magistrature and the police following an allegedly Gülen-inspired investigation into AKP corruption,  prosecuting hundreds, including two opposition party leaders, for a republican version of lèse majesté – he has magnanimously declared that those charges will be dropped since the coup – and harrying critical media.

His desire to be a new sultan is widely mocked. But he is not the only ambitious politician on the planet.

Sure, abuses of France’s state of emergency have been relatively limited – alleged troublemakers banned from ecology and anti-labour reform protests and some apparently arbitrary house arrests, for example.

But I hate to think what powers French Prime Minister Manuel Valls or, for that matter, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, would give themselves if there was a serious attempt at a military coup in France.

The Turkish coup attempt was a serious threat to a democracy that has been overturned on four occasions, apparently launched by a network that has infiltrated the state, the media and private industry.

Since it was defeated, it has strengthened Erdogan and allowed his government to purge that state machine, a purge which, the evidence already shows, is unlikely to be confined to people who really did plot to seize power.

Who defeated the coup and why?

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CHP vice-president Bülent Tezcan Photo: Tony Cross

“If they had let us, we would have got into those tanks. We would! It was our duty to kill those two soldiers inside,” Ahmet, a taxi driver who’d confronted the troops in front of parliament on 15 July, told us.

Little doubt that he is an AKP supporter. Little doubt that most of those who faced down the tanks were, judging by the divide between AKP and secular supporters I witnessed on the rallies in Istanbul.

So, although the popular mobilisation was certainly to defend a democratically elected government, can we really describe it as a mobilisation to defend the principle of democracy, as the Turkish government claims.

Like the rest of us, Turks tend to be most enthusiastic about democracy when it produces the results they desire.

Of course, opposition MPs courageously went to parliament on the night of the coup, as the vice-president of the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP), Bülent Tezcan, reminds me at the party’s huge Ankara headquarters.

As jets flew overhead, they held a special session, even discarding the jacket-and-tie dress code given the circumstances, although they took to the bunkers when the bombs started falling.

“We call the Turkish parliament a veteran parliament,” Tezcan declares in poetic-historic mode. “Because this parliament managed the independence war and this parliament was built through that battle, that struggle. And that night the parliament showed that it is a veteran parliament.”

The following day all the parties, including the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose members had not been in the parliament building overnight, signed a declaration in support of democracy.

“The unity that emerged out of the struggle against the coup still continues, we are working for it to continue and we are working for it not to dissipated,” Tezcan says. “I hope it will continue.”

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has made a big play of national unity, in part, one suspects, for defensive reasons. The secular camp is afraid that a strengthened Erdogan could use the state’s beefed-up powers against them and is anxious to make it politically difficult to do so.

For the moment Erdogan is playing along, inviting Kılıçdaroğlu and right-wing secular leader Devlet Bahçeli to a meeting, along with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

How far is the CHP prepared to go?

Erdogan said that there appeared to be consensus to “minor changes” to the constitution, a puzzling formulation when referring to a state’s fundamental law.

“What was discussed was a quick amendment in the provisions of the constitution concerning judicial processes,” Tezcan says. “Our position concerning judicial process has not changed. We have previously stated that we stand for the primacy of independence and impartiality of the judiciary. For all the amendments we will approve, our basic and essential condition will always be the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.”

But Erdogan had already hinted that the secular parties might be ready to go along with his pet plan of establishing a presidential system.

Tezcan claims to believe that he won’t push that too far. “I don’t think he will damage conciliation with a discussion of the system of government. The president of the republic may argue for a presidential regime, we defend parliamentary democracy. To have differences of opinion should not prevent dialogue, conciliation and working together.”

To read my my report Will Turkey’s political unity last? click here

Lokman Ertürk Photo: Tony Cross
Kazan distct mayor Lokm Ertürk Photo: Tony Cross

That evening in a sprawling restaurant on the outskirts of Ankara I meet the mayor of the district that is home to the Akinci airbase, from which the planes that bombarded parliament took off.

He proudly describes how residents surrounded the base, set fire to their furniture and bales of hay to prevent the planes taking off and eventually forced the rebels to surrender, capturing key plotters.

Eighty-four people are still in hospital after having been wounded.

The mayor is given to professions of loyalty to democracy and the president.

Bosnian, Turkmen, Arab and Syrian immigrants live there, he says, people of all ages are “standing together, waiting, guarding”  in response to Erdogan’s appeal in case of a new attack on democracy.

“Until our president and our superiors tell us to go home and stay home, we are going to be guarding the streets.”

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Turkey’s post-coup purge brings fear of media witch-hunt

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Turkey’s government has launched a purge of all institutions since the failed 15 July coup, including the media. But how do we know if it is pursuing genuine plotters or  witch-hunting government critics?

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Leman director Zafer Aknar with the offending issue of the paper Photo; Tony Cross

Istanbul 25 July 2016

The 15 July coup attempt came as a shock to everybody – including foreign journalists in Istanbul.

Fariba Nawa is an Afghan, who’s lived in the US for some time. She promised her family she wouldn’t be going back to Afghanistan or any other war zone, so they went to Istanbul, only to find themselves in the middle of a coup.

Kiran Nazish is of Pakistani origin and has also lived in the US. Having reported from a few hairy places, she went to Istanbul to write in peace on the banks of the Bosphorus. Thar didn’t work out.

Forty-two journalists and 31 academics had a surprise of a different sort this morning when they found themselves on a prosecutors’ list of people to be detained in connection with the coup attempt.

The best-known appears to be Nazlı Ilıca, a 72-year-old reporter and former MP who lost her job in 2014.

I have no idea if she has anything to do with US-based Fehtullah Gülen, who the government says was behind the power grab, but the evidence against her, so far as internet trolls are concerned, seems to be that she reported corruption allegations against members of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Those accusations arose during the earlier stages of the AKP’s feud with the Gülenists, now referred to by the AKP as the “2013 coup”, and led to a purge of prosecutors and police.

It also led to a crackdown on the media with papers having offending issues seized and some being taken over by the government, notably the Gülen-linked Zaman, whose English-language editor Abdülhamit Bilici was full of praise for Erdogan and the AKP when I interviewed him during the 2007 general election. How times change!

Media under attack since 2007

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Journalists’ union president Ugur Guc Photo: Tony Cross

In his office in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, journalists’ union president Ugur Güc is getting ready to defend any journalist who come to his organisation for help.

“Since 2007 many journalists have been arrested,” he says, although the union has lately had its hands full defending Kurdish journalists in the south-east, the scene of conflict between the military and Kurdish armed groups.

So the government’s record does not inspire confidence that the purge will be restricted to people truly implicated in the failed putsch.

“We will defend anybody who is a media worker,” he says. “We have many members who previously worked for Zaman newspaper and other newspapers and now are unemployed. For sure we will defend them!

“What they were doing was journalism. We are not interested in their connections.”

But he admits it won’t be easy to defend anyone who really supported the coup.

The problem is that the Gülen organisation really is a conspiracy, whose members keep their membership secret and aim to achieve positions of influence in the state and civil society.

The AKP knows this because it used its network to achieve power and fight the secularists, going along with prosecutions of alleged coup plots that are now being denounced as Gülenist set-ups.

Fear of a witch-hunt

The young man we meet in a café next to one of Istanbul’s many noisy major roads prefers not to give his name.

He is one of “six or seven” journalists who have resigned from Nokta magazine for fear of being caught up in a witch-hunt.

Nokta, which opposed the coup, has been fingered as a Gülenist publication and its chief editor, Cevheri Güven, is on the list of people to be picked up.

“Bringing journalists into line by forming such lists, not letting them sayl things we do not want is not a solution,” he says. “Because in a democratic regime everybody has the right of freedom of expression.

“We do not know what these lists are. They are taking some people, arresting them, then releasing some of them after a few days, and continuing to imprison some others. In my opinion this is not correct.”

Güven and a colleague were detained for two months last year because of a cover, showing Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffins of soldiers killed in the south-east.

Nokta has had to go 100 per cent digital because printing houses refuse to touch it.

Although Güven admitted sympathy for some of Gülen’s ideas, the journalist says he did not let it affect editorial policy and that the magazine took a different line to the Gülenists on questions such as Kurdish rights and democracy..

“I have not seen any connection to them. As far as editorial policy is concerned, our chief editor and coordinator said, we will try to make BBC-style journalism. I don’t think that a Gülen newspaper will try to do BBC-style journalism.”

Police seize satirical paper’s post-coup print run

“So you’re sort of Turkey’s Charlie Hebdo,” I say to Leman’s director Zafer Aknar as we sit down in the magazine’s cluttered office in central Istanbul.

And, indeed, there are photos of a visit by cartoonists and writers from the French satirical paper on the wall.

After the coup attempt Leman published a front page cartoon showing soldiers confronting anti-coup demonstrators, both groups pushed forward by huge hands, depicting the conflict as a “struggle for power between two groups”, as Aknar puts it.

“We prepared the magazine and sent it to printers,” he recalls. “Then we shared the front page on Facebook and Twitter as we have been doing every week. After this post, so-called journalists from the pro-government media launched a campaign against us and then Ak-trolls joined in. They shared the location of our office on internet and called people who were already on the street to go to the office.”

A mob gathered outside the office, although they missed the staff, who had already gone home.

When the police turned up they told the protesters to go home because they had everything in hand.

Which they did, in a way. In a scene that could have been satire itself, they went to the printers and seized the print run, even though they had not warrant to do so, then, when the warrant arrived, went into town to seize papers that had already been distributed.

That didn’t satisfy the trolls, who posted “thousands of messages” threatening the paper, “Didn’t you learn your lesson from Charlie Hebdo?” “Probably Isis was right,” “If you haven’t learnt your lesson, we will teach you,” “Sons of bitches, we will come, raid and burn,” ”‘Are you still alive?” were some examples.

Although none of Leman’s staff are on the present wanted list, Aknar, who is no stranger to the authorities’ attentions, drily comments “It’s not our turn … yet.”

To read my account of the media after the coup for RFI click here

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Two rallies and a purge – Istanbul after Turkey’s failed coup

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Patriotism was on show everywhere in Istanbul a week after the 15 July coup attempt, cars flying Turkish flags blasted out songs praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There were nightly rallies on Taksim Square, whose edifices were covered in huge banners declaring a victory for the nation. All parties had opposed the putsch … but there were fears that the ensuing purge could go further than supporters of Fehtullah Gülen, the US-based imam alleged to be behind the power grab.

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The sun sets behind the Atatürk statue on Istanbul’s Taksim Square Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 22 July 2016

“Erdogan, Erdogan …”

As the sun sets behind the Atatürk monument, Taksim Square fills with a crowd waving Turkish flags – street-sellers are doing a healthy trade – responding to an appeal by President Erdogan to occupy the centres of Turkey’s towns to prevent a repetition of last Friday’s coup attempt.

I’m just off the plane and haven’t met my fixer/interpreter yet, so have to find English-speakers, which rules out a large part of the crowd.

Those who do speak to me, apart from the Algerian woman who tells me in French she has come to see what’s going on, are Erdogan loyalists, proud that a popular mobilisation faced down the tanks and soldiers with deaths and injuries on both sides.

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Flag-sellers make the most of the patriotic mood Photo: Tony Cross

As a new hit song – chorus “Erdogan, Erdogan …” – blasts out, Mesut, an IT engineer, tells me “we are not supporting any party” but he has confidence in the government.

“Because we are living in 21 century, it shouldn’t be, this kind of thing,” he says. “We are supporting our democracy, that’s all.”

Turkey is a European country, he adds, “We are not Middle East any more.”

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Flagwaving in front of one of the big screens ahead of Erdogan’s speech Photo: Tony Cross

Neither he nor Songül, who has come back from Belgium where she lives and works, believe that Erdogan will abuse the powers he has assumed in the aftermath of the failed putsch.

“I think that the people now have the knowledge that Erdogan is for democracy, is not a dictator, which is said by many countries, she comments. “I think he is supporting democracy and the people love him. It is possible that he has more power now but he is not a dictator.”

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Young men pose for a photo during the rally Photo: Tony Cross

As the crowd swells, Erdogan appears on one of the giant screens that loom over the square, giving a speech, which is presumably broadcast to the crowds on the squares of towns across the country, to an audience that claps regularly, more regularly in fact than the crowd on the square.

The speech is long and is followed by music and more speeches that will last all night, as I find out when I return to my hotel, conveniently close to Taksim, inconveniently close to the noise.

I don’t imagine people staying on the luxury hotels that look onto the square, or residents of the streets that surround it, get any sleep at all.

To read my report of the rally for RFI in English click here

Saturday 23 July

Conscripts, cadets rounded up with coup-plotters

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The Istanbul Palace of Justice guarded by the police and army Photo: Tony Cross

There are few people on the vast esplanade in front of Istanbul’s maIn court house.

Barriers prevent access to most of it, behind them sit a couple of armoured cars, down the side of the intimidating structure, in the pompous pomo style, is a long line of buses commandeered to transport police to raids on barracks and military academies.

Amog the few people here – either in the cafés or leaning on the barriers in the blazing sun watching for signs of activity – are relatives of soldiers detained inside.

Most of them don’t want to speak, indeed one man denounces us as interfering foreigners who want to do down Turkey, but one man, who refuses to give his name, tells us that his son, a cadet, was one of 300-400 cadets detained at the air force academy four days after the coup.

Either he has a military family’s confidence in authority or he is anxious not to speak out of turn and jeopardise his son’s chances of being freed, as 1,200 soldiers were in Ankara this morning.

“The state will decide,” he says when asked what will happen to the boy. “The state will interrogate people and the guilty ones will be punished. That is it. But my son is not guilty. Because, he was a student and he was at the school and he was taken together with some 300-400 other students. They took him just to have his testimony.”

Other people we meet have limited sympathy for the detainees.

A couple who run a small restaurant say they were on the streets to oppose the coup.

“You are talking about the conscripts,” says Savas. “They are detained because they have to be interrogated. We saw what happened, they are doing this for the sake of the public. They wll be released after two or three days.”

“No-one will be able to divide this country,” his wife butts in. “We will fight together under this flag.”

“They planned to create panic and turn Turkey into Syria or Egypt,” is furniture-maker Turgay Dogany’s view of the coup-makers. Some innocent people have probably been detained, he admits, quoting a Turkish proverb that indicates a phlegmatic approach to potential injustice.

“For sure! Wet leaves may be burned with dry ones. You cannot choose. It is not all the military, just some gangs in it. It doesn’t mean that all 50,000 people are guilty.”

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Relatives of soldiers watch the court house for signs of activity Photo: Tony Cross

Many of the 7,423 soldiers detained are conscripts or even cadets of 14-16-years-old, according to Senaly Karatas, who we meet in the poky but centrally situated offices of the Human Rights Organisation in Istanbul.

The organisation is more used to handling the cases of victims of the military’s offensive in the Kurdish-majority south-east, where 100 soldiers are reported to have been detained.

Many families are scared to ask for help, she says. “We have written applications and 30 verbal applications.”

“Military service is obligatory in Turkey and it is not possible for a conscript to disobey orders,” Karatas points out, describing the young soldiers’ fate as “most tragic part of this situation”.

Many families have no news of their sons and don’t know how to find out where they are or how they are being treated.

“One family saw the photo of their son in the newspaper Posta, where it was clear that he had been subject to violence and was being detained,” she explains. “They went to his unit, they said he was arrested, but the family could not find him at places where he could be detained. In the end we found that he was in Silivri prison.”

He has been charged with involvement in the coup.

The family of one high-ranking officer did not dare file a complaint but told the human rights group that they were frequently insulted and obstructed as they trailed round police stations and courts searching for him.

“The declaration of the state of emergency greatly increases our concern,” Karatas says, citing official figures that show 10,410 people detained, 7,423 of them soldiers, 2,014 of them judges and prosecutors, 44,530 civil servants and other public-sector employees and have been suspended from their jobs, and 241 civilians and 24 coup-makers were killed during the coup.

The first measures of the state of emergency, announce today, were the closure of 15 universities and 600 other educational institutions and the extension of the limit of detention without charge from four to 30 days.

To read my report on Cadets and conscripts caught up in Turkey’s post-coup crackdown click here

“Terrorists in uniform”

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The mosque where prayers were said for Senol Sagman in Besiktas Photo: Tony Cross

Late in the afternoon friends of Senol Sagman gather at a mosque in Besiktas district to pray for him.

Two large wreaths of yellow flowers stand by the small cemetery next to the mosque, men perform their ablutions at the fountain in the centre of the mosque’s courtyard.

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Wreaths outside the mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Sagman’s friend Mustafa Gülenc, who ran a catering business with him, describes how his friend died.

“We went out into the streets, the soldiers were in front of us, we were saying ‘Allahu Akbar’, ‘Allahu Akbar’, Gülenc recalls. We told the soldiers ‘Don’t fire on us. A Muslim cannot kill a Muslim!’ They said ‘Don’t say Allahu Akbar!’ First they shot in the air, then they shot at us. I lay down and when I got up I saw that my friend was dead.”

The soldiers were “terrorists in uniform”, he says.

To read my report for RFI on the mosque honouring Senol Sagman click here

Sunday 24 July 2016

“After this they will take us”

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CHP supporters march down Istiklal Caddesi Photo: Tony Cross

Taksim is packed again on Sunday. Coachloads from the provinces arrive, streaming down Istiklal Caddesi in the sweltering afternoon heat, one group in file carrying an enormous banner they will unfold when they arrive at the square.

This rally has been called by the largest opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), which like all other parties represented in parliament opposed the coup.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has called for the national unity in defence of democracy to continue and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has responded by declaring its support for the demonstration.

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Women arrive at the CHP rally Photo: Tony Cross

There are no “Erdogan, Erdogan” songs this time, however. The last post for the victims of the coup attempt is head in perfect silence, then part of the crowd joins in with the national anthem.

There are many portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic who is the secular camp’s idol and apparently as few AKP supporters as there were CHP supporters on Friday.

Searching for English-speakers, I find a group of Afghans, Hazaras horrified by the Islamic Sate attack on a protest in Kabul that has killed 80 people and injured 230.

Abdurazzak, a Libyan, pays a heartfelt tribute to “the new face of democracy”.

“We are supporting Turkish people who face this army who want to take authority by force because in Libya we are still suffering from this,” he says. “We are still fighting to get our democracy.”

As for the Turks, none of those I speak to have been on the night-time rallies called for by Erdogan during the week.

Many are worried that Erdogan will profit from the boost in his support and the emergency powers granted to the state to clamp down on the secular camp.

“He is more powerful,” comments Hussein, a . “You know the extraordinary situation in Turkey now. They are taking everybody from this corporate [Gülen’s organisation]. But we know that after this they will take us.”

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The crowd listens to the national anthem at the start of the CHP rally Photo; Tony Cross

Turkey has the secularists to thank for its democracy, he argues. “We supported and established democracy in Turkey, not the other people.”

Hayri, a middle-aged man, says he has come to show that he is opposed to the coup but also because he fears Erdogan will take advantage of the situation to make “antidemocratic rules”.

The big powers should learn not to “play with the card of Islam, which they did in Syria”, he argues.

“Everything that is going on from Munich [scene of a recent shooting spree by a teenager] to here is because of this dirty game and Turkey is also partly responsible, with Saudi and Qatar.

“I also believe the European Union should think about Turkey in a very serious way,” he adds. “Because this is a very important moment for the future for the democracy of Turkey.”

The secularists feel threatened, political analyst Behül Özkan told me earlier in the afternoon.

AKP supporters drove through their neighbourhoods chanting Islamic slogans after the defeat of the coup. “The exact word is, the secular people feel trapped.“

To read my report Turkey’s secular opposition rallies for national unity click here

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Who was behind Turkey’s military coup?

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An attempt by part of the Turkish military to stage yet another coup has failed – ignominiously, judging by reports of fighting between troops and police, masses of civilians stopping tanks and seizing bridges, pustschists rounded up and officers asking for asylum in Greece. But who dunnit?

The Turkish military has staged several coups in the past, all of them more successful than this.

Past coups have been motivated by anticommunism, opposition to peace with the Kurds and, above all, the military’s vision of itself as the defender of the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Who could have plotted this attempt to seize power?

  • Fethullah Gülen: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames the exiled leader of a movement that has pursued a strategy of accepting secular democracy while infiltrating state institutions that suited Erdogan fine when he was on his way to power but turned into a rival network once he was had won a couple of elections. The AKP leader has been in a power struggle with the Gülenists since a split over their plans to expand their schools network and it has got really nasty – exposures and allegations of corruption by Erdogan allies and relatives, leading to purges of the police, the magistrature and the media, with plenty of non-Gülenists being persecuted as well. So this comes under the heading of “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” Whether they were involved or not, Erdogan would have profited from the occasion to clamp down further on the movement. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t. They might have wished to preempt further purges and repression of their network. Gülen’s movement in the US has denied it, however. One has to ask whether, after several years of attrition, the Gülenists had enough support in the military to put substantion numbers of tanks and troops on the streets.
  • The Kemalists: It wouldn’t be the first time, although we were beginning to believe it was the last, that the military has stepped in to stop a trend towards Islamism. Officers raised on loyalty to a secular state have plenty to worry them in Erdogan’s Turkey. The old AKP, which argued that its relationship to Islam was the same as the German CDU’s relationship to Christianity, is no more and the desire to Islamise Turkish society has advanced in tandem with the president’s growing megalomania. The putshcists’ statement apparently used Kemalist phraseology, although it also promised freedom of citizens, regardless of religion, race or language, an apparent reference to the rights of the Kurds and other minorities that is not classical Kemalism. But they seem to have neglected to warn the secularist parties, the CHP and MHP, both of which condemned the coup with their MPs going to parliament to defend it. In the past the “social-democratic” CHP has proved more committed to secularism than democracy, although it is in the process of revising its position, and the MHP is an authoritarian right-wing party that has openly collaborated with the military. It’s unclear how high up the ranks the conspirators were and whether they planned a classic military dictatorship along the previous bloodstained lines, although it’s probably what they would have ended up with, like it or not.
  • Erdogan himself: This being the Middle East, there has to be a conspiracy theory and, sure enough, social media are full of claims that the whole thing is a put-up job to strengthen the president’s power. If we follow the logic of cui bono, it has to be admitted that is where we end up. Millions have turned out to support the elected government, an increasingly dictatorial leader can now pose as a defender of the people’s will, there can be a further purge of the army, the rest of the state apparatus and, if needs be, the media and civil society. But it would have been a hell of a gamble wouldn’t it? Turkey’s internal divisions and instability have once again been advertised to the world. The government will reap short-term benefits but the long-term effects may be less favourable. Plus, are there really military officers so devoted to their duty that they are ready to risk execution by implicating themselves in a pseudo-coup to benefit the president?

My guess is that the coup was the work of a combination of Gülenists and Kemalists. But it’s a guess, made in France with limited information. So you might like to draw your own conclusions.

All the political parties, including the secular nationalists, left-wing Kurd-based HDP, opposed the coup. Sadly, they are unlikely to receive much thanks. With IS active in Turkey, as well as Iraq and Syria, the war in the Kurdish region in full swing and continuing attacks on freedom of speech and other basic rights, the future looks grim for Turkey.

Read my reports from the second Turkish election in 2015 for RFI here

There’s more on this blog Turkey, to start click here

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Israel’s 2009 offensive on Gaza – a turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict

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With charges of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel flying in Britain and France, I’m publishing an account I wrote up going to cover Israel’s 2009 offensive on Gaza. It marked a new stage in the bitterness between Israelis and Palestinians, a bitterness that infects the world’s politics, as we see today. I was in Israel and the West Bank because Israel prevented entry to Gaza, although colleagues managed to get in via Egypt just as I left the region. I found fear and distrust on both sides, a deeply divided Palestinian leadership and a demoralised and isolated Israeli left.

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War as a spectator sport – Israelis and journalists watch Gaza from a hill near Sderot Photo: Tony Cross

12 January 2009

On a small hill just outside the Israeli town of Sderot, the world’s press, and a few curious local people, are looking at Gaza. With the international news media banned from entering Gaza, photographers’ huge telephoto lenses point south, towards Israeli tanks, whose barrels point further south again. TV reporters record to camera with the territory in the distance and an Israeli information-gathering balloon floating above.

It’s the beginning of the third week of Israel’s offensive against the territory and, compared to the early days, the old hands say things are calm. Nevertheless, a tank lets off a shell, there’s some gunfire and a larger explosion lets off a large cloud of smoke which rises lazily towards the clear blue sky.

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A shell falls on Gaza Photo: Tony Cross

A convoy of land-cruisers flying Israeli flags pulls into the dirt car park behind the hill. All the drivers are women.

Ariela Geneger is one of them. She explains that they have been collecting for the troops and have put together packages of thermal underwear, gloves, socks and “some goodies” for 1,000 soldiers.

Geneger says that this is a gesture of support for the offensive but the women’s concern seems more maternal than geostrategic.

“Those are our children they’re fighting,” she says.

Her son is a pilot, she explains, and the son of the group’s organiser is in Gaza.

“It’s not this separate thing, army and civilians; it’s part of this … this country’s all bound together.”

The group has also collected supplies for the bomb shelters in Sderot, which has been one of the principal targets of rockets fired from Gaza. “These people live under attack, so it can’t go on like this,” Geneger says.

But she also expresses sympathy for the people of Gaza.

“A lot of sympathy. My heart breaks for them; it’s just awful. And I don’t know, I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t know if it can be stopped now or if it needs to go on in order for people to talk. Because eventually people have to talk, so why do we have to go through all this?”

Maybe fighting first and talking after is the way of the world, she says, but, as a professional psychologist, she knows that “everybody should talk”. And that includes the Israeli government talking to Hamas, although the politicians argue that the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza cannot be an interlocutor because it does not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Will the offensive bring peace?

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “I hope it will make it better. I really don’t know. I think too many people assume that they know too much but I’m afraid that we don’t know enough.”

Also on this blog War, what is it good for?

A kibbutz on the edge … and the missing Arabs

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Marlene Markovitch Photo: Tony Cross

There’s another anxious mother at Zikim, a kibbutz which lies just 400 metres from the Gaza border.

“Mothers in Israel can’t really think rationally,” says kibbutz secretary Ilil Burde. “I don’t think any mother can think rationally when it comes to this question. So don’t ask me.”

Two of her four sons may be called up to fight, so Burde, aware of her status as a representative of the kibbutz, is reluctant to express an opinion on the offensive.

“When you reach this point, I don’t think any mother in the world is a rational person. You get only emotion. At least, that’s the way I am,” she says.

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“If all the mothers around the world would be the leaders of the world, there wouldn’t be any war and we’d all be happy. So, if you want to see any declarations, let all the mothers of the world be the leaders of this world and we’ll stop all the wars.”

Meanwhile, she blames Hamas for the latest fighting and the civilian deaths in Gaza, which are now in the hundreds.

“In war there’s casualties,” she says. “And Hamas uses civilians as human shields.”

Burde, who sees herself as a left-winger, also blames Hamas for undermining the peace camp in Israel. Most of the kibbutz members supported the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005, she says, but now they feel betrayed by the breakdown of the truce.

“We’re very, very deeply disappointed because we feel instead of going forwards things are just going backwards,” she says. “What happens here, with all the rockets that we suffer for years and years, we the more left-wing in Israel can’t convince the more right-wing in Israel that we have to go on with the peace process because we get the answer, ‘See what happens, we draw out of the occupied territories in Gaza and they shoot rockets on us.’ ”

The kibbutz is doing its bit for the nation by playing host to a group of soldiers, some of whom are playing basket ball on a tarmacked surface near Burde’s office.

Standing by a paddock where two white horses graze, Zikim resident Marlène Markovitvh points to a field between her home and the barbed-wire topped fence which surrounds the kibbutz.

“That was all on fire,” she says. On the terrace of her white-painted bungalow stands an improvised flower-pot – trailing plants grow out of exploded ordnance.

Rocket attacks reached the level of 50-70 per day before Hamas’s six-month truce with Israel, she says. The number was reduced during the Egyptian-brokered six-month truce but the attacks increased again when it ended.

No kibbutz members were killed, although some children were injured and a direct hit on the dairy killed six cows. Zikim is one of the biggest milk producers in Israel and has two small factories, which have also been hit.

The offensive drastically reduced the number of attacks but brought new disruption to the kibbutzniks’ lives. The sound of the military’s drones and helicopters frightened the children so much that they had to be evacuated.

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The kibbutz’s school Photo: Tony Cross

“They know that they are from Israel but it’s frightening when you hear them at night, the few last days it was horrible,” says Markovitch. “The few last days, we couldn’t sleep, we were scared. Everbody was scared.”

Markovitch speaks with a certain pride of her good relations with Gaza residents who worked on the kibbutz before the Israeli blockade of the territory.

“These were made by a friend from Gaza,” she says, inviting us to sit on metal chairs at her dining table.

She and her husband have phoned some of their Gazan acquaintances during the offensive but believe that they are not keen to talk for fear that Hamas will find out that they are in contact with Israelis.

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The abandoned Arab house on the kibbutz Photo: Tony Cross

Markovitch takes us up a gentle slope, past the neat bungalows and the school with its roof reinforced in case it’s hit by a rocket, to a half-ruined house looking onto the kibbutz on one side and onto Gaza on the other. It belonged to an Arab family who fled in 1948, after the state of Israel was founded.

“They were scared, they were very scared by the Israelis and they didn’t want to stay here. But, anyway, I think they didn’t have a choice, too. The Israelis didn’t give them any choice.”

The family came to visit not long ago, says Markovitch.

“We invited them and they ate here and it was very nice. They are angry because we are getting their place but it’s the eternal problem between Palestinian and Israeli – who owns what?

“But they have the right to be here, too,” she concludes with a laugh, which has perhaps a hint of embarrassment.

To read and hear my report from Zikim for RFI click here

West Bank Palestinians collect for Gaza, criticise Abbas

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Rezeq Barghouti, RFI colleague Eduardo Febbro, interpreter Steve Nasi Photo: Tony Cross

14 January 2009

In Ramallah the collections are for Gaza and the declarations of solidarity are with the 1,000-plus people killed there, the several thousand wounded or homeless.

Collecting aid has replaced dance and poetry as the principal activity of the Baladna Cultural Centre. Cardboard boxes are piled up the walls, bags of clothes and babies’nappies lie on the ground.

Rezeq Barghouti, who works for the Palestinian Authority’s farming section, explains that people have given everything from agricultural produce to blood.

“Here’s olive oil from the farmers in the West Bank,” he says. “And here we have blankets, you see, because they suffer from cold now in Gaza.”

An appeal to give blood got a big response, says Barghouti, “because you know that we cannot go to Gaza now. We cannot stand with our people there, so what can we do?”

Barghouti wants to see unity of the Palestinian leadership, after more than two years of often violent clashes between President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas.

But he is critical of Abbas’s response to the offensive, as are, it seems, the big majority of people on the West Bank, which, until now, has been Fatah’s base of support. At the start of the offensive Abbas declared that Hamas was at least partly to blame because it had broken off the truce with Israel and resumed rocket attacks.

Most Palestinians point out that Israel’s killing of seven Gazans on 5 November last year was already a breach of the ceasefire and agree with Hamas that the blockade of the territory is another form of hostile act.

“All the Palestinians in Gaza suffer the same enemy and they suffer the same killing … Israel doesn’t distinguish between this and this,” says Barghouti. He is particularly critical of Egypt for closing the Rafah crossing and preventing Gazans from escaping the offensive and of Abbas for failing to criticise Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite being a Palestinian Authority employee, Iman Nafeh, who is organising another collection in Ramallah’s main square, is even more outspoken in her criticism of Abbas.

“He is all the time saying he wants peace and he’s supporting the peace,” she says. “And he is even shaking hands with the people that killed the Palestinians and … they are not giving him anything.”

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Iman Nafeh with helpers Photo: Tony Cross

Nafeh, who is tightly wrapped in hijab and a long coat over a long dress, insinuates that informants are likely to report her words to people in power, even the president himself.

“I know he will hear me,” she says, adding that all Palestinians are under observation.

“I am sorry because he’s not going to be elected if we have another person who is stronger than him … People here, they are angry about what Mr Abbas is doing.”

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Palestinian activists thank Hugo Chavez for breaking off relations with Israel over the offensive Photo: Tony Cross

Outside a modern building on a windy street a kilometre or so outside Ramallah’s town centre stands a small but noisy crowd, mainly women, waving the Palestinian flag and shouting slogans in Arabic and English.

They are a delegation of Palestinian political parties, who have come to present a letter of thanks to the Venezuelan consulate, which is inside the building, because the Bolivarian republic broke off diplomatic ties with Israel over the offensive.

According to our interpreter, Steve, the move has made Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more popular than Abbas, with TV presenters asking why Arab countries, who are supposed to be the Palestinians’ allies, have not made such vigorous protests and why the Palestinians don’t have such resolute leaders.

Khitam Fahim, an activist in a women’s organisation linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, sees the Venezuelan leader as a comrade in the struggle.

“So, we are here to say Viva Venezuela! Viva Hugo Chavez! Viva every freedom fighter in this world!” she exclaims. Foreign politicians should stop calling Palestinians “terrorists, she says, “We are freedom fighters and we are struggling for our freedom and we are with the whole freedom fighters in the world.”

Fahim, too, wants Palestinian unity: “The Palestinian leaders should go to emergency negotiations, emergency unified leadership for their people.”

They should stop quarrelling and they should stop listening to the US, she says.

For all Fahim’s criticisms of the US, many Palestinians hope that an event in Washington will bring an end to the offensive.  They think that Israel may want to finish its operations before the inauguration of Barack Obama as president next week.

To read and hear my reports on RFI click here

Divided Palestinians bicker as Gaza burns

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Abdullah al-Frangi Photo: Tony Cross

15 January 2009

Abdallah Al-Frangi is a Fatah veteran and a member of the movement’s Central Committee. But, when he meets us in a capacious office in Ramallah, he doesn’t rush to defend Mahmoud Abbas.

Asked about popular criticism of the president, Al-Frangi sighs and shrugs. Nobody believed that the attack would be so intense when it started, he says, by way of a partial excuse.

But he believes that the Israelis were preparing the offensive for longer than eight months, a claim based on information which Abbas presumably also has access to.

“So I don’t believe that the Israelis came to Gaza because of the missiles of Hamas,” Al-Frangi says. “From time to time they want to show the world, and the Arab people, that they are strong and that nobody can touch them and nobody can fight against them and I think they used Hamas in this case.”

Al-Frangi’s family is from Gaza and he seems deeply moved by the effects of the offensive.

“It is too hard! It is too hard for me, it is too hard for everybody who is a human being,” he says. Basing himself on frequent calls to Gaza, he says that people are living without water or electricity and that many have been wounded or killed, mostly civilians.

“Surely I am suffering with them,” he adds.

Above all, Al-Frangi wishes to see en end to the split between Fatah and Hamas, which “is helping the Israelis more than this attack”.

Abbas’s priority is a ceasefire, according to Al-Frangi. He also wants to reopen Gaza borders and rebuild Palestinian unity.

But “it is not easy.” For the last two years the two sides have not spoken. Hamas is perhaps justified in its suspicions of Abbas, who dismissed an elected Hamas-led government two years ago, after Israel, followed by the US and the European Union, refused to deal with the movement.

For his part, Al-Frangi is suspicious of Hamas, which seized power in Gaza and drove out leading Fatah members after the dismissal.

He used to negotiate with the group and says that the Islamists are unreliable negotiators, prone to demanding radical revisions of already agreed points just when a deal seems close.

Al-Frangi is blessed, or cursed, with a name which means foreigner. His father insisted that it came from an ancestor who was the first to wear European clothes rather than from the family’s origins, but Hamas exploited it when he returned to Gaza from exile with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Tunis.

Hamas members told him to “go back abroad” or even “return to your foreign religion”, he recalls.

Even now he is not optimistic.

“I have the feeling the Hamas people are not ready to make a step towards Fatah to make a common policy together.”

As we meet Dr Mustapha Barghouti in another spacious Ramallah office, the television shows footage of the Gaza press centre just after it has been hit by Israeli bombs.

Barghouti, who was information minister in a short-lived unity government, accuses the world’s news media of bringing this on the journalists reporting from Gaza, who are almost all Arabs because of Israel’s ban on reporters entering during the offensive.

“I think this is a result of the silence of the world media about the Israeli violation of every basic principle of free journalism and press,” he says.
There was “no serious protest” against the Israeli ban, he feels.

“This is the third time that they bombard journalists. Already three journalists were killed and now several others injured. They have now upscaled their attack to include not only Abu Dhabi channel and Al Arabiya channel but even Reuters offices and that’s because of the international community and the complicity of the international media, worldwide.”

“The time has come to stop treating Israel as if it is above international law,” Barghouti says.

The press ban is because Israel “is trying to hide the truth”, he says. “They’re trying to hide the fact that this is not a war on an army, it’s a criminal war against civilian population with a totally disproportionate power between the two sides and with the use of prohibited equipment and prohibited weapons.”

Barghouti considers it proven that Israel is using white phosphorous in Gaza. The Israeli army denies using the chemical and ICRC chief Jakob Kelleberger told a press conference in Jerusalem yesterday that he had seen no evidence of its use on a visit to the territory’s main hospital.

But several newspapers and a report by the US-based group Human Rights Watch agree with Barghouti. Human Rights Watch points out that its use in densely populated areas violates international legal requirements to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. Gaza has 75,000 people per square kilometre, compared to 25,000 per square kilometre in Manhattan, according to Kellenberger, who took care to declare that such a dense population means that “the choice of weapons is important”.

Barghouti, who is a medical doctor, claims that other, unknown chemicals are being put inside munitions, saying that they “seem to burn the whole tissue to the bone”.

“The only thing that is not burnt by these chemicals is the bone …. Doctors called me and said that when we find somebody with an internal injury we open it and we cannot do anything because this is not a bleeding we can stop. It’s a burn that goes on and on and on till the patient dies.”

Barghouti was once general secretary of the Palestinain People’s Party, the former Communist Party, but left the post and the party in 2002 to establish the Palestinian National Initiative, along with US-based academic Edward Said. He stood as an independent in the 2005 presidential election, coming second but winning only 156,000 votes to Abbas’s 501,000.

Like Al-Frangi, Barghouti calls for unity, although he is less indulgent towards President Abbas. Blaming Hamas rocket attacks for provoking the Israeli offensive was “a very big mistake”, he says. “And he’s paying for it.

“His credibility is very low today. It’s the lowest ever and I don’t know if he will regain any credibility after what he has done.”

Admitting that the divisions in the Palestinian camp are “very damaging”, Barghouti insists that there is also “very serious internal transformation”. Abbas’s Fatah, along with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is likely to be “the biggest loser from this war”.

The lack of internal democracy means that “most of the Palestinian forces that are struggling for Palestinian rights are outside the PLO now and most forces inside the PLO have become a bureaucracy, feeding on the Palestinian Authority”.

Forces that are “not Hamas and not Fatah” are “working very hard to find a way to go back to national unity and that’s what we need”, he insists, citing the government in which he served as proof that unity is possible.

Even though he is one of the most outspoken secular Palestinian politicians, Barghouti seems to believe that the immediate answer to his people’s problems is in foreign hands. The European Union should stop buying arms from Israel, he says, and “what will stop aggression is a serious change of the behaviour of the international community, which looks like either careless or complicit with Israeli aggression”.

Gaza day of anger in Ramallah

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Women on the day of anger demonstration Photo: Tony Cross

16 January 2009

Friday morning in Ramallah, the streets are unusually empty. Uniformed police gather on the central Manara Square, while groups of men loiter around its edges.

This is the third Friday since Hamas called on Palestinians to demonstrate their solidarity with Gaza after Friday prayers.

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Youths wait for the Gaza day of anger protest to start Photo: Tony Cross

Among those waiting is Faisal, a thin, dark, shabbily dressed man, with sunken cheeks and an intense stare. He is a member of Fatah and spent 12 years in Israeli jails. His faith in his leaders has been shaken and his patience with the peace process with Israel has run out.

“There is no other solution,” he says. “The only solution is resistance. First it was Jenin [the refugee camp where over 50 Palestinians were killed in 2002], now it is Gaza, maybe tomorrow it will be Ramallah, so the only solution is resistance.”

Faisal thinks that the Palestinian National Authority should be disbanded and armed struggle resumed. Like Hamas, he argues that Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate has run out since he was elected for four years in 2005. Abbas claims he should stay on until 2010 because the Palestinian Legislative Council has since decreed that presidential and legislative elections should be held together.

We discuss where it would be best to stand and which roads can serve as escape routes if teargas is fired. On the previous two “days of anger” the Palestinian Authority’s police have dispersed Hamas supporters in a manner unlikely to foster Palestinian unity.

As the call to prayer rings out a crowd fills the Jamal Abdel Nasser mosque, spilling out onto the street in front of a market which stops business as the imam begins his sermon.

Thousands have been killed in Gaza, he says. UN resolutions against Israel have not been implemented, while resolutions against Muslims are, so what’s the use of the international body?

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Prayers before the Gaza day of anger demonstration in Ramallah Photo: Tony Cross

The preacher is as contemptuous of the leaders of Muslim countries as he is of the UN.

The unbeliever has declared war on Gaza and the leaders of Islamic nations watch and do nothing except count the killed and wounded, he says. Unbelievers attack believers all over the world.

In the mosque, in a passage down the side reserved for women and in the street, hundreds of the faithful join the prayer. Then the demonstration starts.

Or rather demonstrations, because, although this has been billed as a demonstration for Palestinian unity, the crowd splits in two – hundreds of Hamas supporters gathering on one street at the front of the mosque, while hundreds of others head down another street behind it, both marches heading for Manara Square.

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Hamas supporters brandish the Koran Photo: Tony Cross

Loudspeakers crackle slogans and orders, one of which is from Hamas leaders telling their supporters not to wave banners so as to avoid trouble. Some small groups of women wave the green flag nonetheless, but are quickly instructed to put them away and obey.

The Hamas contingent is segregated according to gender. The women, in hijab and long dresses and coats, brandish the Koran and shout shrill slogans, calling on the movement’s armed wing, the Brigades of Ezzedine al-Qassam, to fire Kassam rockets as far as Tel Aviv.

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The march heads for the centre of Ramallah Photo: Tony Cross

Wahid Mansour seems a little out of place among the Islamists. Clean-shaven and in western dress, he says he is “just seeing what they’re doing” on his way home from the mosque. Unlike the Hamas women shouting right behind him, he is extremely supportive of Abbas.

“Mahmoud Abbas is the president of all Palestinians,” he says. “He is elected from Palestinians and he is one who express our Palestinian will.”

On the square the two protests come together without dispute. One young demonstrator, Rami, believes that Palestinians should “unite under one legitimate leader” but won’t commit himself on the question of whether Abbas is the man for the job.

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Mustapha Barghouti and supporters on the day of anger Photo: Tony Cross

As the different currents of the demonstration eddy around the lion monument in the centre of the square, Mustafa Barghouti and his supporters make a nosiy entrance, shouting slogans in support of Hugo Chavez. As the Hamas women pass them, they scream “Haniyeh! Haniyeh!” in support of the Hamas chief in Gaza who was deposed by Abbas as prime minister. In another corner, Fatah supporters shout their own slogans.

Unity doesn’t seem to be a done deal.

To read and hear my reports of the day of anger in Ramallah click here

Israelis on edge in Sderot and Ashkelon

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Israeli flags greet visitors to Sderot Photo: Tony Cross

17-18 January 2009

On Saturday in Jerusalem Hassidic Jews in their black hats and coats make reproachful signs at our taxi driver for driving on the Sabbath, on the hill outside Sderot secular residents spend their day off staring at the occasional explosion on the Palestinian horizon, late in the evening Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declares a ceasefire and announces: “We won”.

Overnight the alarm sounds in Ashkelon, where we have found a hotel. On Sunday morning there are reports of six rockets being fired from Gaza. At the government press centre in Sderot, officials say that two landed near the town. When we ask to see them, we’re told that they fell in fields outside the town and there isn’t much to see.

“It’s another proof that Israel made the decision unilaterally that we would like to halt fire, unfortunately Hamas is responding, firing rockets into Israel again and again,” says Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Leo Vinovesky.

Israeli officials hold Hamas responsible for all attacks. If it’s pointed out that they could be the work of other groups, they reply that Hamas controls Gaza and should therefore control them. How it can do this after a three-week bombing campaign aimed at destroying their political and administrative apparatus is unclear.

So how long can the truce last?

“The fact is that Israeli forces are still there in the Gaza Strip, ready for any scenario,” says Vinovesky.

“We have the right to protect ourselves,” he adds “You witness here in Sderot – it’s not a life to rush into the shelters every five minutes, every 10 minutes. Imagine that happening to this population in the south of Israel for more than eight years, so enough is enough!”

The whole of Sderot is draped in Israeli flags and banners. Billboards depicting a heart pierced by a missile welcome you to the town. In the centre men sit around gossiping under a tree, as they would in any town around the Mediterranean.

Shopkeeper Sasson Sara hasn’t much confidence in the ceasefire. He gives it “maybe one month, that’s all” and says that the rockets won’t stop until the Israeli army has wiped out all of Hamas.

Two women passing through town also put all the blame on Hamas. One of them, Nama, is on her way home from a centre which helps people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of rocket fire.

“I think they should have stopped the fighting,” she says but adds that Hamas must stop firing rockets and shooting “their own people”.

“I don’t like the war,” she sighs.

The sirens sound as I arrive in Ashkelon in a taxi whose hitherto-lethargic driver is spurred into action. I don’t realise what is happening and he yells at me in Hebrew, jumps out of the car and leads me into a bank where a crowd of customers and passers-by is shepherded into a shelter. People talk calmly, there’s even a certain camaraderie. We hear no explosion.

Hamas announces a one-week ceasefire, calling on Israel to withdraw and open the border crossings. Its leaders, too, claim victory.

Israeli peace camp isolated and split

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Supporters of the offensive argue with peace campaigners in Jerusalem Photo: Tony Cross

In Jerusalem on Sunday evening Israeli leader Ehud Olmert receives European Union leaders, who have been in Egypt negotiating a truce, at a dinner in the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

On the other side of a busy crossroads, a small group of protesters chants “War is not a game!” and “Peace yes! War no!”.

In the past their movement, Peace Now, has mobilised thousands to call for negotiations with the Palestinians and peace with Israel’s neighbours. Today, with a large majority of Israelis apparently supporting the offensive, they are less than 20.

“Maybe sometimes you have to use violence to defend your country,’ says one of the protesters, Devora. “But when you have to use violence, you have to make it pointed … you have to use the minimum violence to the maximum effect and I feel like we used the maximum violence to the minimum effect.”

Like so many Israeli women, Devora has sons in the army.

“I’m a mother and I would like the ceasefire to hold that people won’t be killed on both sides of the line but I’m not very hopeful.”

Three girls, armed with banners and the Israeli flag, stage a counter-demonstration, accusing the peace campaigners of supporting “terrorists”, who kill Israeli women and children.

“We want all the Palestinians – no, not all the Palestinians, Hamas – will die!” says one of them, Amara, struggling with her English but not her feelings. The two sides launch into an impassioned argument before the girls cross to the other side of the road to wave the flag and shout at the peaceniks.

Some Peace Now and left-wing leaders initially supported the Gaza offensive, believing it to be a justified response to Palestinian rocket attacks. But by the second week they had organised a demonstration of 1,000 to call for a rapid end to the attack.

“It’s very hard,’ says Peace Now member Yonatan, who admits that he feels isolated from most Israelis at the moment.

“Once you say you’re against the offensive … they take it as agreeing with Israel being bombed and I don’t think Peace Now agrees with Israel being bombed and it doesn’t agree with Israel bombing.”

In the chilly Jerusalem night, the protesters keep up their chants to an audience of police and passing cars. Several drivers sound their horns in disapproval as they speed past.

Israel denies using white phosphorous

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Lt-Col David faces the press on a hill overlooking Gaza Photo: Tony Cross

19-20 January 2009

Today the hilltop outside Sderot is serving as the venue for an Israeli army press conference. As a drone whines overhead, an officer presented to us as Lt-Col David tells journalists how his soldiers felt as he led them in combat in Gaza.

“The last eight years, when civilians here, just behind you, were targeted by Hamas terrorists daily with these rockets destroying homes and schools and creating a lot of disruption to civilian live, this is what we were trying to stop and I think, I know, that when my soldiers were in there this is what was in the back of their mind all the time.”

But official minders move in when he is asked whether Israel has used white phosphorous.

Military spokesperson Olivier Rafovitch, who speaks to the media in battle dress with a rifle slung over his shoulder, denies the charge and claims that Hamas used the chemical in one rocket attack on a village near Gaza.

According to the Israeli official line, the offensive is the fault of Hamas, the white phosphorous is the fault of Hamas and, says Rafovitch, the civilian casualties are the fault of Hamas.

“I believe that the ones who have to be blamed for the civilian losses of life are Hamas,” he says. “Hamas was using the people of Gaza as a human shield. It’s not a secret, it’s not new.”

Meanwhile, a report by Amnesty International says that its investigators “found still-burning white phosphorus wedges all around residential buildings” in Gaza.

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Israeli troops near the Kalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem Photo: Tony Cross

Yael Stein, Research Director at the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem, finds the official denials incredible.

“Of course it came from the Israeli army,” she says. “There was one day they said Hamas threw one rocket to Israel and that was with a little bit of white phosphorus. They had such a report, but it can only come from the Israeli army.”

The question has not made the front page of the Israeli press, whose coverage of the offensive has drawn criticism from some NGOs.

One of them, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (Acri) wrote an open letter to the media to tell them that they weren’t exactly speaking the truth to power.

“What’s being portrayed right now is this ultrapatriotic rhetoric, where criticism is really shunned,” Acri’s Melanie Takefman told us last week. “We’re saying that this is a crisis but, look, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have freedom of expression and that there can’t be meaningful debate.”

You’re never far from the army in Israel and the office of Centre for the Protection of Democracy in Israel (Keshev) is just one floor above a suite guarded by soldiers and clearly closed to the public.

The close military presence doesn’t seem to inhibit Keshev’s Yizhak Be’er, who monitors press coverage of the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world and doesn’t like what he finds.

Sifting through a pile of copies of best-selling daily, Yediot Aharanot, he contrasts the prominence given to rocket attacks on Israel with no victims, while reports of the hundreds of Gazan civilians killed receive little attention.

Be’er accuses the press of buying into an official discourse which portrays all Israel’s conflicts as battles in a war to defend western civilisation.

“There is a confrontation that is depicted as war of the west against the terror, global terror, and against fundamentalistic groups of Islam,” he says.

Recalling the dictum “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not getting at you”, he points out that Israeli consciousness is formed by Jewish history and the present hostility of the country’s neighbours. But he thinks that the media-managers have made many mistakes in their handling of this offensive.

“First of all, the closure of the borders to foreign journalists, it is a stupid decision,” he says. “The foreign media have only one source now, the Arab cameras. Al Jazeera and Al Watan who give one side of the story.”

While officials have expressed satisfaction in the work of the newly-established National Information Directorate, Be’er believes that foreign reporters know when they are being treated like idiots and are alienated by officially-organised visits to hospitals with Palestinian patients admitted before the offensive which are meant to show Israeli generosity.

Ban – and Hamas ordnance – face the cameras in Sderot

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Israeli police show off rockets fired by Hamas at Sderot and its surroundings Photo: Tony Cross

 

Sderot’s press centre is closed for “reasons of security”, as Ban Ki-Moon heads for the town. The UN Secretary-General’s press conference is to be held in the town’s police station, allowing the cameras to film him against a background of showcases packed with used ordnance collected after Palestinian rocket attacks.

As we wait for Ban to arrive, corpulent police officers fuss around with flags, trying to hang them from twisted shells and other officials tell us that no questions will be taken after Ban’s statement.

Earlier in the day Ban was in Gaza, where he called for punishment for those responsible for the bombing of UN-run buildings in which a number of civilians died.

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Ban Ki-Moon with Sderot’s mayor Photo: Tony Cross

Here he meets Sderot’s police chief, who shows him what an exploded shell looks like, and its mayor, who accompanies him to the mikes.

Ban declares the rocket attacks “unacceptable” and expresses sympathy for the “trauma” experienced by local people.

But he also calls on Israel to open the border crossings, with “transparent, clear and effective border management” to stop weapons being taken into Gaza. And he says that there must be political action “or there will be an increased radicalism among Palestinians”.

Like almost everybody nowadays, it seems, Ban wants Palestinian unity. But, although he does take two questions which allow him to say a little more of what he wants to say, he doesn’t answer when asked if that unity would include Hamas.

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Alley, Jerusalem Old City Photo: Tony Cross

To read and hear my reports of the 2009 Gaza offensive click here

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The white working class – does it exist and should you despise it?

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In the US, the Republican right have taken to sneering at the “white working class”. But they’re not alone. Middle-class liberals same and the media feel free to caricature “white trash” or “chavs”. Class hatred lives on … when it’s top-down.

It’s so difficult to hate in peace these days. Overt racism is generally frowned upon – even by racists (“I’m not racist but …”).  Islamophobia is having a moment, it’s true. And then there’s class hatred, as long as it’s de haut en bas, especially if you target the “white working class”, the subject of sneers from the American right recently but also portrayed by media and liberals as the repository of all bigotry, backwardness and bad taste.

Having created a monster, the Republican establishment is desperately trying to shift the blame for flipping the switch that brought Donald Trump to political life. Two writers in the New Republic have found the perfect suspect – “the white working class”.

“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles”, writes Kevin Williamson, going on to decry “the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog”.

Cheering him on, David French claims Williamson has debunked “the idea that the white working-class (the heart of Trump’s support) is a victim class”. His church tried to help these people, he reports, but found its efforts wasted because they prefer welfare to work, drop out of education on a whim, shag the neighbour at the first sign of marital discord and neck prescription drugs with the same gusto that respectable people sip Chardonnay.

Reassuringly, French “hate[s] the mockery that poor and working-class people of all races endure” and doesn’t think that the drug-addicted fornicators are solely responsible for their fate. The government, the “cultural elite”, “progressive culture”, “progressive policies”, the “progressive welfare state” and the “elitist sexual revolutionaries” are not blameless, he adds … to no-one’s surprise.

For the New Republic, while both the causes and the guilt seem to be collective, the solutions must be individual – don’t claim disability, be faithful, stop snorting OxyContin move to get a job – and the way to achieve this is to give “white working class” – collectively – a good telling-off.

It isn’t just the right that lumps white working-class people into a homogeneous, contemptible mass.

“[S]ince Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash’,” writes US journalist Connie Schultz. “These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.”

Jack Metzgar in In These Times points out that the statistics don’t bear out the assertion that Trump’s support comes disproportionately from non-college-educated whites, the definition of working-class adopted by a Brookings article that says it does, while Charles Davis of TeleSur claims that among white voters who make less than US$25,000 a year, it is Bernie Sanders who is in the lead by a margin of 15 per cent.

But Trump isn’t really the point.

“Every group has its ‘other’,” Schultz observes. “For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

When Hillary Clinton was fighting Barak Obama for the Democratic nomination, she was accused of playing to racist sentiment to appeal to the white working class. In France the white working class is often blamed for the rise of the Front National’s support, as it is for Ukip’s successes in the UK, where “chav” is now a term of abuse and the poor are the given the reality-TV treatment. These are standard liberal media analyses, repeated again and again in various forms, but generally identifying a hazily defined racial-cum-socio-economic category with whatever prejudice is to be decried at any given moment.

My own experience is that there are selfish shits and bigots in all social classes, although upbringing and level of education may influence the degree of subtlety with which these characteristics are manifested. Generosity and open-mindedness can be found everywhere, too, although I’ve found solidarity, in the sense of standing together in the face of common oppression, is somewhat lacking in the middle and upper classes.

But, however you define it, the working class is not ethnically homogeneous.

So what is that adjective doing in front of that noun?

We don’t talk about the black female gender, so why would a socio-economic category have an additional racial characterisation?

I understand one can reasonably talk about a white bourgeoisie in some Latin American countries, we could certainly talk about a white slave-owning class in the southern United States and the Caribbean in the past but, despite racist employment practices, membership of the working class is not such a privilege that it is restricted to any one race.

When factories close workers of all ethnic groups are thrown out of work. When incomes are squeezed, the banks foreclose with a lack of discrimination that would be praiseworthy in another context.

Some working-class people may react to the loss of relative security with racism or other prejudices – as may middle-class business owners or professionals who feel the pinch – but, when they do so, they are identifying as white, not working-class. When you express contempt for someone who is less privileged than yourself, whether in education, income or status, you’re defining them by class. And that’s a form of bigotry, too.

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Pakistani atheist infiltrates jihadi training camps

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Saying you don’t believe in any god can be dangerous in Pakistan. It has tough blasphemy laws and apostates from Islam could be punished by the death penalty, if fundamentalist mullahs haven’t incited a mob to murder you before your arrest. Nevertheless some Pakistani atheists are open about their non-belief, there’s even a Facebook page, and are accepted by their friends. In Karachi in 2008 I met an atheist who took his bravery a little further and infiltrated jihadi training camps. Here’s what he told me (article first published on RFI’s English website).

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The port in Karachi Photo: Tony Cross

Karachi 21.02.2008

While Pakistan’s three largest parties are all secular, all mainstream politicians are at pains to justify their policies with reference to Islam.

Sikandria Hayat Janjua, a member of Farooq Tariq’s Labour Party, feels no such constraint. Sitting in a hotel restaurant, he rips into religion at considerable volume. Tareeq says that his outspokenness has landed him in trouble more than once. One night, after outlining a vigorous critique of Islam to a young man who was staying with him, Janjua woke up to find the shocked believer stabbing him repeatedly.

He fought him off, summoned help and was taken to hospital, where, he’s happy to report, medical science saved his life.

“I believe that we will one day conquer death,” he tells me.

Janjua’s religious skepticism dates from the death of his father, a soldier who was killed in the nominally-independent region of Azad Kashmir in 1980. His killer was not an Indian soldier defending Delhi’s rule of much of the divided state, but an Islamist who took exception to what Janjua calls his father’s “progressive views”.

Janjua joined the secular Jammu and Kashmir Student Federation and then came to Karachi University, where he now leads an organization called the Progressive Youth Front. The organisation’s relations with the Islamist student organisations are not particularly friendly.

But back home in Azad Kashmir Janjua is part of the community, so, in 2001, when a group of young men went off to an Islamist training camp, they invited him to attend.  He says he went back on two other occasions, in 2003 and 2004.

Janjua says that there are five such camps in Azad Kashmir and that they take in about 180 18-22-year-old men for six-month courses in fighting for Islam, including preparation to become suicide-bombers.

“They welcome me as a muslim and took me to a barracks,” he says of his first visit.

The fajr prayers, at dawn, were followed by readings from the Koran. Janjua says the verses were selected to encourage suicide-attacks then followed by physical training.

He says he attended an international training camp at Kotly, 160 kilometres north of Islamabad, where the mullahs tried to convince him to join their version of jihad.

“They said ‘You will be in heaven, paradise, and you will be with houris [the pure and beautiful companions promised to the faithful], you will get then wine and different kinds of fruits, honey, and you will have your own luxury cars and horses …’ ”

Most of the youths who go to the camps are poor, Janjua says, attracted by promises of happiness that escapes them on earth. Some are criminals, invited to atone for their sins by sacrificing themselves for the fundamentalist cause.

“They are told that ‘You are a criminal and you will be in heaven and this is the way – that you take a jacket and finish your enemy all over the world, especially India, British, America and all the white-skins’.”

Janjua confirms reports that Pakistan’s secret services help the camps, claiming that some of the preachers were from the military. He adds that Saudi Arabia is a major financial backer.

The camps still exist, he says, but their names have changed. In 2001 they were bellicose references to the armies of the faithful.

“Now their terrorist camps are changed, like gardens and like flowers’ names, and inside the terrorist camps they are the same.”

He hopes that a PPP-led government in alliance with secular parties like the Awami National Party in the North-West Frontier Province will bring the intelligence services to heel and close the camps.

“This is my hope. Ground realities may be different,” he concludes.

To read or listen to my reports for RFI of Pakistan 2007-08 click here

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Pakistan votes to end military rule under shadow of violence

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Pakistan’s 2008 election came soon after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and saw more murders and bombings. But voters turned out. The result was historic. A military ruler democratically removed and his supporters accepting the result with more good grace than they were generally given credit for, leading to the first peaceful transition from one civilian government to another in 2013, although not, sadly, to the end of the violence and corruption that continue to dog the country. Here’s my account of polling day in Lahore.

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The old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Lahore 18.02.2008

A stretch of Cooper Road is cordoned off by the police and the polling stations, one for men and a separate one for women, have to be approached on foot.

The parties have set up stalls to check off their voters’ names as they arrive, often delivered by vans driven by political activists. Lahore is the Muslim League Nawaz’s stronghold and the PML-N is doing brisker business than the People’s Party, the PPP. But, at 9.30am, voting is slow, as is also reported to be the case in other areas.

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PPP activists check voters’ names Photo: Tony Cross

PPP party worker Farhat Hussein believes that people are afraid there will be bombs or shootings.

“Violence is the main problem,” he says. “You know, one candidate was killed and the people of Lahore is afraid.”

Last night in the city, PML-N candidate Chaudhry Asif Ashraf was shot dead, along with his driver and secretary, while three other party workers are still in a serious condition in hospital. Voting in four constituencies has been postponed because of the death of a candidate. One of those constituencies was to have been contested by Benazir Bhutto, whose assassination sparked fears of a major bombing campaign.

During the campaign most of the violence was restricted to the tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the secular, Pashtun-nationalist Awami National  Party has been the  principal target.

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PML-Q activists on polling day in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

The worst attack was on Saturday in Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal agency, where 47 people were killed and many more injured. Most of them are reported to have been PPP supporters who were attending an election rally.

In NWFP dozens of public employees tried to get out of their obligation to man polling-stations. They’ve been told that they must find replacements or face disciplinary action. And many retired police and soldiers are reluctant to take up the offer to help with security. They consider the pay – one-and-a-half euros a day – insufficient compensation for the risk.

Here in Lahore police claim to have arrested 37 would-be bombers over the last three months, while in Hyderabad, Sindh province, they claim to have caught three yesterday.

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Voting at a women’s polling centre in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

No wonder the desire for peace is on many voters’ minds. A chatty group of women, some wearing hijab, say that they voted PML-N. Razia Mumtaz says that she and her friends want change.

“We want to elect people who work for our country and for better system, change the system, for the safety of the people,’ she says. “First of all, for the safety of our country.”

Most voters seem to expect some electoral fraud by the outgoing government. PML-N supporter Osama Ahmed is typical.

“They have already said in the newspaper ‘We have won’. What else I can say? Everybody knows there’s going to be something fishy-fishy.”

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PML-N supporters parade a lion on the back of a lorry – and RFI tries to record its roar – during the 2008 election campaign in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Aref Lateef, who also supports Nawaz Sharif – “he lies less, the others lie more” –is resigned to the idea.

“Pakistan has a tradition of vote-rigging, it was always rigged. Except once, I think that when East Pakistan broke away [to become Bangladesh] at that time it was not rigged but they did not give the power to the party who was in majority.”

Throughout the day, people report that they or their families are not on the electoral register, although it’s impossible to tell if this is due to their negligence or official malpractice.

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Inside the old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

If the PPP is to be believed, there’s also a danger that voters will turn up and find that their polling station isn’t where they expected it to be. In Punjab the party has complained about 398 “ghost” polling stations, moved to between four and seven kilometres’ distance from where they were initially sited. The PPP claims they will be used to provide over a million fake votes.

If there’s a Benazir cult in PPP strongholds, like Faisalabad and Sindh province, the principal object of veneration in Lahore is Nawaz. The PML-N’s symbol is a tiger, often transformed into a lion by the party faithful who wear big-cat badges on their shirts or waistcoats. Yesterday the party sent a truck with a lion in a cage on the back touring the city. The wild beast can stand equally for the party and its leader, so Osama Ahmed, who seems to have a penchant for natural history, declares: “Better a man-eating lion than cannibals!”

Another PML-N supporter, Sayed Shaufiq Hussain, sees Nawaz as a local boy persecuted by Musharraf.

“We have our hero from our society – number one – from our region – number two – and he was competent. One thing was very bad when he was sent in Saudi Arabia forcefully. So that’s why people are still with him. He had done a lot of jobs for our society, especially for the Lahori people, so that’s why we are with him.”

More than one Nawaz-admirer praises his backing for Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme. In a poor area far from the city centre, Liaquat says that the bomb is essential for the nation’s security, although he doesn’t see any immediate threat.

“Nobody will attack on Pakistan because we are safe,” he declares. “And we are brave. And we are Muslim.”

Musharraf’s collaboration with the US war on terror also comes under fire. Sitting astride a motorbike, Sohel Iqbal refuses to say who he voted for. But it certainly wasn’t the president’s party, as becomes clear when he explains his top priority for the new government.

“Independent foreign policy, independent. Not to depend on America or things like that. All the decisions should be taken within the country.”

Voting picks up as the day progresses. By the evening the opposition are convinced that they have won. Their supporters take to riding around the city cheering and, in some cases, firing into the air, a form of celebration which leads to several arrests.

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Moghul-era lattice-work in Lahore’s old city Photo: Tony Cross

To hear my radio report for RFI on election day in Lahore click here

Military ruler Musharraf’s party bows out ‘with grace’ after 2008 election defeat

Credit where credit’s due, it was historic that the PML-Q, a party that was not overburdened with principles, accepted the 2008 election defeat and that General Pervez Musharraf didn’t hang on much longer. Musharraf is still being dragged through the courts but Pakistan, for the moment at least, no longer seems under danger of a new military coup, following one elected government succeeding another in the 2013 election.

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Mushahid Hussain concedes defeat Photo: Tony Cross

Mushahid Hussain knows how to make a virtue of necessity.

His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, has suffered a humiliating defeat in the election. It has gone from government to an isolated minority in the National Assembly. Its share of the vote may not have fallen much but its share of seats in parliament has been slashed.

Several party leaders, such as party president Chaudhry Shujat Hussain and his brother Pervaiz Elahi, are no longer MPs. Former Railway Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmad, a key figure in the previous government, managed to lose two seats, Pakistani law permitting candidates to stand in two constituencies in one election.

But Mushahid Hussain handles interviews with the aplomb of the journalist-turned-politician that he is and assures reporters that the PML-Q will be the first party in the history of Pakistan to “accept the election outcome with grace”.

Let the PPP and the PML-N form a government, he says. “We want to play our democratic role in the opposition, as a vibrant and robust opposition, an issue-oriented opposition.”

Apart from the press, the PML-Q’s rather scruffy headquarters is largely empty now, after a meeting of the party’s MPs and its more numerous failed candidates earlier today.

“The mood was upbeat, the morale was high,” Mushahid Hussain insists, although Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, who is hovering in the background, doesn’t appear to be brimming over with joy.

Mushahid Hussain is a Senator and Secretary General of PML-Q. Before the election he predicted that the PPP would invite his party to join a coalition, an option that Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, flirted with for a brief moment. Now it’s clear that PML-Q is banished from the ministries.

Hussain warns the new government against confrontation with President Pervez Musharraf, whose coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999 gave rise to the split between the N and the Q and the latter becoming the governing party.

“We don’t want any destabilisation. We don’t want any polarisation. We don’t want any new fronts opened between parliament and president.”

Although Hussain says he hopes the new government will last its full tenure, the PML-Q clearly hopes to profit from the political turmoil that is likely to hit the new government, both in its relations with the president and in relations between the biggest parties in its ranks.

Meanwhile, PML-Q needs to hold onto its members. Its leaders have appealed to the PPP not to poach from its ranks.

“This has been a tradition in Pakistan. We hope the norm has changed now because let’s not repeat old mistakes,” says Hussain but he laughs when reminded that his own party wasn’t shy of the practice in the past.

So far as government policy is concerned, Hussain doesn’t expect big changes. He calls for a “consensual” foreign policy. Musharraf’s collaboration with Washington may be unpopular with the voters, but that doesn’t mean that the new government will change it.

“That foreign policy has not been criticised by the opposition, as yet. The People’s Party and PML-N have not criticised the fundamental contours of Mr Musharraf’s foreign policy,” he points out with a courteous smile.

Lawyers fight on for chief justice Chaudhry’s reinstatement and Musharraf’s departure

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Pakistani lawyers demand the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry, fired by Pervez Musharraf Photo: Tony Cross

Another question on which the government’s supporters may face disappointment is the fate of the judges sacked by Musharraf last year.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry’s dismissal, last March the ninth, started a long battle between the president and the legal profession. Chaudhry was later reinstated … and then sacked again.

Later, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency, the president sacked about 60 judges who refused to take a new oath of office.

Nine months of noisy and emotional protests, usually ending in black-suited lawyers being teargassed and beaten by the police, played a major role in discrediting Musharraf and his allies in government.

But the PPP has not committed itself to reinstating Chaudhry or the other judges. Nor has Zardari made any promises to that effect since the election, even though one of his party’s best-known members is lawyers’ leader Aitzaz Ahsan, who’s still under house arrest in Lahore.

So the lawyers are still demonstrating. At Islamabad’s district court, a group of them sit in front of a giant photo of one of their colleague’s suffering the attentions of a zealous police officer.

They say they’re optimistic, especially since PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has said that the judges must be reinstated immediately. Since the election, Sharif has made surprise appearances at lawyers’ demonstrations and even proposed direct action to place the judges back in office. Now he says he wants an executive order, like the one that dismissed them, to reverse the damage.

Nobody seems too clear as to how this would work, however.

Should they argue that the order which sacked the judges was unconstitutional, on the grounds that Musharraf didn’t bother to consult parliament about it?

Or does the president have to issue a new one? And does that necessitate getting rid of the present incumbent?

The demonstrators’ legal training doesn’t seem to be much help in this case. But there’s no doubt what Islamabad Bar Council member Malek Lateef Kokar favours from an emotional point of view.

“A new president might come,” he hopes. “This president, better sense may prevail on him just at this right moment. Better sense may prevail and he may do what the people of Pakistan like and what they want. They have given a clear mandate against the President Musharraf. The honourable way is that he must restore the judiciary and quit.”

The lawyers, who by now must be as adept at chanting as pleading a case, segue from slogans in support of the judges to “Go, Musharraf, go!”

To hear my radio report for RFI on the lawyers’ protests click here

To read and listen to my report for RFI from Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here

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