Archive for the ‘Regions’ Category

14
Aug

An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region.

Islam’s schism, simmering for fourteen centuries, doesn’t explain all the political, economic, and geostrategic factors involved in these conflicts, but it has become one prism by which to understand the underlying tensions. Two countries that compete for the leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, have used the sectarian divide to further their ambitions. How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain.

Alongside the proxy battle is the renewed fervor of armed militants, motivated by the goals of cleansing the faith or preparing the way for the return of the messiah. Today there are tens of thousands of organized sectarian militants throughout the region capable of triggering a broader conflict. And despite the efforts of many Sunni and Shia clerics to reduce tensions through dialogue and counterviolence measures, many experts express concern that Islam’s divide will lead to escalating violence and a growing threat to international peace and security.

Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries. In many countries it has become common for members of the two sects to intermarry and pray at the same mosques. They share faith in the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings and perform similar prayers, although they differ in rituals and interpretation of Islamic law.

Shia identity is rooted in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, in the seventh century, and a long history of marginalization by the Sunni majority. Islam’s dominant sect, which roughly 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims follow, viewed Shia Islam with suspicion, and extremist Sunnis have portrayed Shias as heretics and apostates. Read more…

Editorial in the Council on Foreign Relations http://www.cfr.org

 

11
Aug

Who are the Yazidis?

Written on August 11, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in International Conflict, Terrorism & Security, Middle East, News, Op Ed

It’s tragic that the world pays attention to largely forgotten communities only in their moments of greatest peril. This week, we’ve watched as tens of thousands of Yazidis — a mostly Kurdish-speaking people who practice a unique, syncretic faith — fled the advance through northern Iraq of the Islamic State’s Sunni jihadists, who have set about abducting and killing hundreds of members of this religious minority. As The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris reports, as many as 40,000 remain stranded on “the craggy peaks of Mount Sinjar,” dying of hunger and thirst and devoid of much support from a faltering Iraqi government. (Days after the Yazidis’ plight became known, the Obama administration authorized air strikes in northern Iraq against the Islamist rebels.)

Ever since seizing Mosul, Iraq’s main urban center in the north, the forces of the Islamic State have embarked on a gruesome mission to transform their domain into an idealized Caliphate — on the way, they’ve forced the conversion of religious minorities, destroyed the shrines of rival sects and butchered those they consider apostates. Yesterday, a distraught Yazidi member of parliament in Baghdad made an impassioned appeal on behalf of her people: “An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the Earth,” she said.

The Yazidis, globally, number about 700,000 people, but the vast majority of the community — about  half a million to 600,000 — live concentrated in Iraq’s north. The city of Sinjar was their heartland. Now, it’s in the possession of extremists who seem bent on ethnic cleansing.

The Yazidi faith is a fascinating mix of ancient religions. Its reputed founder was an 11th-century Umayyad sheik whose lineage connected him to the first great Islamic political dynasty. His tomb in the Iraqi city of Lalish is a site of Yazidi pilgrimage, mirroring the Sufi practices of millions of Muslims elsewhere; now, there are reports of the town being turned into a refugee camp for the displaced.

Despite its connections to Islam, the faith remains distinctly apart. It was one of the non-Abrahamic creeds left in the Middle East, drawing on various pre-Islamic and Persian traditions. Yazidis believe in a form of reincarnation and adhere to a strict caste system. Yazidism borrows from Zoroastrianism, which held sway in what’s now Iran and its environs before the advent of Islam, and even the mysteries of Mithraism, a quasi-monotheistic religion that was popular for centuries in the Roman Empire, particularly among soldiers. Not unlike the rituals of India’s Parsis — latter-day Zoroastrians — Yazidis light candles in religious ceremonies as a sign of the triumph of light over darkness. Read more….

August 7 published in the Washington Post

9
Aug

Israelis and Palestinians are still burying their loved ones as Gaza’s third war in six years continues. Since July 8, when this war began, more than 1,600 Palestinian and 65 Israeli lives have been sacrificed. Many in the world are heartbroken in the powerless certainty that more will die, that more are being killed every hour.

This tragedy results from the deliberate obstruction of a promising move toward peace in the region, when a reconciliation agreement among the Palestinian factions was announced in April. This was a major concession by Hamas, in opening Gaza to joint control under a technocratic government that did not include any Hamas members. The new government also pledged to adopt the three basic principles demanded by the Middle East Quartet comprised of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia: nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and adherence to past agreements. Tragically, Israel rejected this opportunity for peace and has succeeded in preventing the new government’s deployment in Gaza.

Two factors are necessary to make Palestinian unity possible. First, there must be at least a partial lifting of the 7-year-old sanctions and blockade that isolate the 1.8 million people in Gaza. There must also be an opportunity for the teachers, police, and welfare and health workers on the Hamas payroll to be paid. These necessary requirements for a human standard of living continue to be denied. Instead, Israel blocked Qatar’s offer to provide funds to pay civil servants’ salaries, and access to and from Gaza has been further tightened by Egypt and Israel.

There is no humane or legal justification for the way the Israeli Defense Forces are conducting this war. Israeli bombs, missiles, and artillery have pulverized large parts of Gaza, including thousands of homes, schools, and hospitals. More than 250,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinian noncombatants have been killed. Much of Gaza has lost access to water and electricity completely. This is a humanitarian catastrophe.

There is never an excuse for deliberate attacks on civilians in conflict. These are war crimes. This is true for both sides. Hamas’s indiscriminate targeting of Israeli civilians is equally unacceptable. However, three Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets, while an overwhelming majority of the 1,600 Palestinians killed have been civilians, including more than 330 children. The need for international judicial proceedings to investigate and end these violations of international law should be taken very seriously.

The U.N. Security Council should focus on what can be done to limit the potential use of force by both sides. It should vote for a resolution recognizing the inhumane conditions in Gaza and mandate an end to the siege. That resolution could also acknowledge the need for international monitors who can report on movements into and out of Gaza as well as cease-fire violations. It should then enshrine strict measures to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Early discussions have already taken place. The Elders, an international group of elder statesmen of which we are a part, hope these discussions will continue and reach fruition.

At the Palestinians’ request, the Swiss government is considering convening an international conference of the signatory states of the Geneva Conventions, which enshrine the humanitarian laws of warfare. This could pressure Israel and Hamas into observing their duties under international law to protect civilian populations. We sincerely hope all states — especially those in the West, with the greatest power — attend and live up to their obligations to uphold the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of populations in occupied territory.

Unity between Fatah and Hamas is currently stronger than it has been for many years. As Elders, we believe this is one of the most encouraging developments in recent years and welcome it warmly. This presents an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority to reassume control over Gaza — an essential first step towards Israel and Egypt lifting the blockade.

The Palestinian Authority cannot manage the task of administering Gaza on its own. It will need the prompt return of the EU Border Assistance Mission, an international effort to help monitor border crossings that was launched in 2005 and suspended in 2007. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton has already offered to reinstate the program, covering not only Rafah but all of Gaza’s crossings. Egypt and Israel would, in turn, cooperate with international monitors to be deployed in Gaza and along its borders, backed by a U.N. Security Council mandate to protect civilian populations. A valuable precedent for trust-building between Egypt and Israel is the international peacekeeping force operating in the Sinai, mandated by the peace treaty signed by the two countries in 1979.

The international community’s initial goal should be the full restoration of the free movement of people and goods to and from Gaza through Israel, Egypt, and the sea. Concurrently, the United States and EU should recognize that Hamas is not just a military but also a political force. Hamas cannot be wished away, nor will it cooperate in its own demise. Only by recognizing its legitimacy as a political actor — one that represents a substantial portion of the Palestinian people — can the West begin to provide the right incentives for Hamas to lay down its weapons. Ever since the internationally monitored 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power in Palestine, the West’s approach has manifestly contributed to the opposite result.

Ultimately, however, lasting peace depends on the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Leaders in Israel, Palestine, and the world’s major powers should believe that policy changes are within reach that would move Israelis and Palestinians closer to a day when the skies over the Holy Land can forever fall silent.

By Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson, Published in Foreign Policy on Aug. 4th http://www.foreignpolicy.com

6
Aug

James Mwangi grew up on the slopes of the Aberdare Mountains in central Kenya. His father lost his life during the Mau Mau uprising against the colonial authorities. His mother raised seven children, making sure both the girls and the boys were well educated. Everybody in the family worked at a series of street businesses to pay the bills.

He made it to the University of Nairobi and became an accountant. The big Western banks were getting out of retail banking, figuring there was no money to be made catering to the poor. But, in 1993, Mwangi helped lead a small mutual aid organization, called Equity Building Society, into the vacuum.

The enterprise that became Equity Bank would give poor Kenyans access to bank accounts. Mwangi would cater to street vendors and small-scale farmers. At the time, according to a profile by Anver Versi in African Business Magazine, the firm had 27 employees and was losing about $58,000 a year.

Mwangi told the staff to emphasize customer care. He switched the firm’s emphasis from mortgage loans to small, targeted loans.

Kenyans got richer, the middle class boomed and Equity Bank surged. By 2011, Equity had 450 branches and a customer base of 8 million — nearly half of all bank accounts in the country. From 2000 to 2012, Equity’s pretax profit grew at an annual rate of 65 percent. In 2012, Mwangi was named the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year.

Mwangi’s story is a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger tale. Mwangi has also become a celebrated representative of the new African entrepreneurial class, who now define the continent as much as famine, malaria and the old scourges.

But Mwangi’s story is something else. It’s a salvo in an ideological war. With Equity, Mwangi demonstrated that democratic capitalism really can serve the masses. Decentralized, bottom-up capitalism can be the basis of widespread growth, even in emerging markets.

That theory is under threat. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the beginning of a global battle of regimes, an intellectual contest between centralized authoritarian capitalism and decentralized liberal democratic capitalism.

On July 26, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary gave a morbidly fascinating speech in which he argued that liberal capitalism’s day is done. The 2008 financial crisis revealed that decentralized liberal democracy leads to inequality, oligarchy, corruption and moral decline. When individuals are given maximum freedom, the strong end up stepping on the weak.

The future, he continued, belongs to illiberal regimes like China’s and Singapore’s — autocratic systems that put the interests of the community ahead of individual freedom; regimes that are organized for broad growth, not inequality.

Orban’s speech comes at a time when democracy is suffering a crisis of morale. Only 31 percent of Americans are “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, according to a 2013 Pew survey. Autocratic regimes — which feature populist economics, traditional social values, concentrated authority and hyped-up nationalism — are feeling confident and on the rise. Eighty-five percent of Chinese are very satisfied with their country’s course, according to the Pew survey.

It comes at a time when the battle of the regimes is playing out with special force in Africa. After the end of the Cold War, the number of African democracies shot upward. But many of those countries are now struggling politically (South Africa) or economically (Ghana). Meanwhile, authoritarian Rwanda is famously well managed.

China’s aggressive role in Africa is helping to support authoritarian tendencies across the continent, at least among the governing elites. Total Chinese trade with Africa has increased twentyfold since 2001. When Uganda was looking to hire a firm for an $8 billion rail expansion, only Chinese firms were invited to apply. Under Jacob Zuma, South Africa is trying to copy some Chinese features.

As Howard French, the author of “China’s Second Continent,” points out, China gives African authoritarians an investor who doesn’t ask too many questions. The centralized model represses unhappy minority groups. It gives local elites the illusion that if they concentrate power in their own hands they’ll be able to move decisively to lift their whole nation. (Every dictator thinks he’s Lee Kuan Yew.)

French notes that popular support for representative democracy runs deep in most African countries. But there have to be successful examples of capitalism for the masses. There have to be more Mwangis, a new style of emerging market hero, to renew faith in the system that makes such people possible.

President Obama is holding a summit meeting of African leaders in Washington this week. But U.S. influence on the continent is now pathetically small compared with the Chinese and Europeans. The joke among the attendees is that China invests money; America holds receptions.

But what happens in Africa will have global consequences in the battle of regimes. If African nations succumb to the delusion of autocracy, we’ll have Putins to deal with for decades to come.

Published on Aug. 4 in the http://www.nytimes.com by David Brooks

27
Jul

The E.U. is the world’s great no-show

Written on July 27, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Europe, Foreign Policy, Op Ed

The Ukraine crisis has shone a spotlight on one of the glaring gaps in the world: the lack of a strategic and purposeful Europe. The United States can and should lead on the response to this conflict, but nothing can really happen without Europe. The European Union is by far Russia’s largest trading partner — it buys much of Russia’s energy, is the major investor in Russian companies and is the largest destination for Russian capital. Some of President Obama’s critics want him to scold Vladimir Putin. But ultimately, it is European actions that the Russian president will worry about.

Consider how Europe has dealt with Ukraine. For years, it could not really decide whether it wanted to encourage Ukrainian membership in the union, so it sent mixed signals to Kiev, which had the initial effect of disappointing pro-European Ukrainians, angering Russians and confusing everyone else.

In 2008, after Moscow sent troops into Georgia, Europe promised an “Eastern partnership” to the countries along Europe’s eastern fringe. But, as Neil MacFarlane and Anand Menon point out in the current issue of the journal Survival, “The Eastern partnership was a classic example of the EU’s proclivity for responding to events by adding long-term and rhetorically impressive, but resource-poor, bolt-ons to existing policy.”

European leaders were beginning to woo Ukraine without recognizing how this would be perceived in Russia. Moscow had its own plans for a customs union, to be followed by a Eurasian Union, which was meant to be a counter to the European Union. Ukraine was vital to Russia’s plans and was dependent on Russia for cheap natural gas. Plus, of course, Ukrainians were divided over whether to move west or east.

Negotiations between the European Union and Ukraine for an association agreement meandered along, with the lawyers and translators taking a year to work out the text. In describing this tardiness as a mistake, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said, “The same thing applies to the [European] Union as to the Vatican. God’s mills grind slowly but surely.” The deal that was offered to Ukraine was full of demands for reform and restructuring of its corrupt economy, but it had little in the way of aid to soften the blows and sweeten the pot. When then-President Viktor Yanukovych rejected Europe’s offer and sided with Moscow, he set in motion a high-speed, high-stakes game that Europe was utterly unprepared for and could not respond to.

If Europe was trying to move Ukraine into its camp, it should have been more generous to Kiev and negotiated seriously with Moscow to assuage its concerns. Instead, Europe seemed to act almost unaware of the strategic consequences of its actions. Then when Russia began a campaign to destabilize Ukraine — which persists to this day — Europe remained a step behind, internally conflicted and unwilling to assert itself clearly and quickly. Those same qualities have been on display following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

The European Union still has a chance to send a much clearer signal to Ukraine, Russia and the world. It could demand that Russia pressure the separatists to cooperate fully with the investigation of Flight 17 and allow the Ukrainian government — which Moscow recognizes — to take control of its own territory in eastern Ukraine. It could put forward a list of specific sanctions that would be implemented were those conditions not met within, say, two weeks.

In addition, Europe should announce longer-term plans on two fronts, first to gain greater energy independence from Russian oil and gas. European nations must also reverse a two-decade downward spiral in defense spending that has made the E.U. a paper tiger in geopolitical terms. Germany, for example, spends about 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, among the lowest rates in Europe and well below the 2 percent that is the target for all NATO members. It’s hard for a country’s voice to be heard and feared when it speaks softly and carries a twig.

If we look back years from now and wonder why the liberal, open, rule-based international order weakened and eroded, we might well note that the world’s most powerful political and economic unit, the European Union, with a population and economy larger than America’s, was the great no-show on the international stage.

Published on July 24 by Fareed Kakaria in http://www.washingtonpost.com

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