Friday, August 19, 2011

Syria: A Question of Competing Narratives


IT is much easier to understand Syria, currently stricken with political revolt, in the light of history. Since time immemorial, a host of empires have decamped on its soil. Damascus, watered by the Barada River, is one of the oldest capitals in the world.

Sharing a 900 km border with Turkey, the gateway to Asia, it is no stranger to conflict or colonisation: conquered by the Pharaohs, Alexander the Great, Nebuchadnezzar, Hulugu Khan, Tamerlane, the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the French, Syria’s soils have often run with blood.

But Syria has also been a place of peace and prosperity. Ibn Jubair, a tenth century traveller, wrote that Syria was a land of blessing. According to his diaries it was a land of civility and culture abounding in fruits and holy men.

Today the holy men may have gone to ground, but a visit to modern Syria – a country buffeted by post-colonial coups, pan-Arabism and Ba’thism – will reveal that it’s graced with fertile valleys, water, gas, oil, a pristine coastline and ancient historical sites.

But with nearly 2,000 civilians killed and over 3,000 “disappearances” since the events of March, tourists and investors are staying away.

President Bashar al-Assad, the son of strong-man Hafez al-Assad, has welcomed the Arab Spring to his fiefdom by unleashing tank brigades upon his citizenry. After four decades of iron rule, Syrians don’t want to be lorded over by yet another Assad.

With journalists banished from Syria and a media blackout, one is confronted with competing narratives. Assad’s regime has blamed intellectuals, the disadvantaged and militant groups for his troubles.

His spokesmen have argued that the violence has been manufactured abroad and is implemented by armed gangs, and that the Syrian people want government to restore security.

There has been lots of diplomatic spin too. Foreign Minister, Walid Moualem, has promised a Syrian democracy by December, and a new constitution by March next year. This reassurance (given to South Africa, Brazil and India) has been deemed “illusory” by Human Rights Watch.

The other narrative – the one of the Syrian street – has had to rely upon social media to get its message out. This story has revealed, mostly via cell phone footage, ongoing human rights abuses by Assad’s security forces, now deemed crimes against humanity by many in the international community.

And whilst the refusal of the military to shoot civilians in Egypt and Tunisia toppled its dictators quickly – and relatively painlessly – the role of Assad’s security forces in putting down public dissent has cast a pall upon the Arab Spring (as has Western meddling in Libya and the Gulf Co-operation Council’s clampdown in Bahrain).

Fouad Ajami, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, has observed that Syria has been locked in a stalemate, where “an irresistible force” has clashed with an “unmovable object”.

And whilst Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution gained real impetus after 26 year-old Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in frustration at Ben Ali’s corruption, Syria‘s defining moment was the death in detention of the 13-year old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb.

He was arrested for singing anti-Assad songs in the village of Jiza during April. When his parents retrieved his corpse a month later – not only was his body riddled with cigarette burns, contusions and bullet wounds – but his neck had been broken, and his penis cut off.

Ramzy Baroud, editor of the Palestine Chronicle, says that this only serves to highlight why progress will only be made in Syria without the old symbols of power. We are dealing with a popular uprising led by civil society wanting complete change.

He says that Syria can’t be held hostage by familial considerations, one-party rule and colonial sectarian classifications forever. Baroud believes that Arab criticism had been traditionally muted on Syria until now because the country had been under genuine threat from Israel and the US, especially after 9/11.

But Syria’s strategic friendship with Iran, its support of the Kurds on the Turkish border, its long involvement in Lebanon, its aid to Hizballah and its refuge to Hamas leaders were aimed as much at stilling internal conflict, as they were at showing that Syria was a regional player, he says.

However, Syria’s role was always “theoretical”. The truth is that the crafty Hafez al-Assad wanted a popular regional profile, but without problems back home.

Imam Abdul Hadi, a Syrian exile who lectures at the London School of Islamic Studies, feels that no-one should doubt the ruthlessness of the Ba’thist regime. He recalls that as a 16 year-old in 1982 he’d witnessed the massacre of over 20,000 people in his home town of Hama when Hafez al-Assad cracked down on the Islamic Brotherhood.

He feels that the recent condemnation of Syria by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, known for his cautiousness in Foreign policy, is a critical moment in the Arab world. The Saudis’ condemnation has been followed by harsh words from US president Barack Obama and other leaders.

Hadi agrees with Baroud, and other Mid East commentators, that Syria has to avoid the pitfalls of Libya where any margin in the conflict could be used as an excuse for western, or even regional, intervention.

This is something that would taint the Syrian revolt. Western pressure on Syria had always been more about specific policy regarding Israel, than the human rights abuses of the Assad regime.

Unfortunately, it seems as if the meddling may have already begun. Al-Manar television, the mouthpiece of Hizballah, reported this month that two local gun smugglers had been intercepted by Lebanese military intelligence trying to ship assault rifles to Syria.

The Lebanese media was quick to point out that the men had a connection with assassinatedLebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri – reportedly a favourite of Saudi Arabia and the US – and that Salafi fighters with Lebanese papers facilitated by the smugglers had been allegedly captured by Syrian authorities.

However, Al-Manar was silent on another allegation – made to me by Imam Abdul Hadi – who said that people in Hama had told him over the phone that they’d identified Hizballah operatives supporting Assad’s regime.

According to Baroud, the Syrian government is deliberately mixing up regional and national narratives, this while civilians continue to endure the wrath of a single family backed by the Ba’thist party. But there is only one way to read the future of Syria, he says.

“The Syrian people deserve equality and social justice, free from empty slogans, self-serving elites and corrupt criminals. What Syria and its courageous people deserve is a new dawn of freedom.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Muslim Community Media: a Ground Plan

Muslim Community Media: a Ground Plan

The Muslim Community Media Trust

MY article in the pre-Ramadan edition of Muslim Views (Muslim Community Media: Is it My Final Crossroads?) has, I hope, led to some introspection about the lot of those who work within our community, especially the media.

In it I confronted the harsh realities that community media faces, and the even harsher economic challenges for those and their families who work within it.

Whilst some who read the article felt it better that I – a loose cannon – should finally retire, others tactfully asked whether it was that bad in the community media. Unfortunately, the answer is, yes.

So how bad is it? Well, the combined take home pay (sans benefits) of our two most senior journalists – with 70 years on the coalface between them – is still less than that of a reporter of five years’ experience in the mainstream. Do the Maths.

And for those who might clamour that community media is all about volunteers, of course, it is – as well as training, empowerment and education – but there has to be a professionally skilled corps at the centre to keep the wheel turning.

The point I’ve made many times is that in the Western Cape, at least, Voice of the Cape, Radio 786 and Muslim Views have to compete with the mainstream, which demands standards. Interns and volunteers have to fit into the skilled structures, and not the other way round.

I’m sure few will disagree that a thriving Muslim media is absolutely essential to our wellbeing as a community. Whilst providing a social stage, it opens us up to local and international audiences.

But where do we go from here?

My suggestion is that a waqf – a trust – be set up to ensure the long-term survival of community media. This waqf, which I will call the Muslim Community Media Trust (MCMT), will act as a central, independent body.

The fine print of how it will be run will have to be left to the experts in this field, but I don’t think it would be out of place to suggest that the MCMT – a national body – be responsible for administration, collection and disbursement.

The main function of the MCMT will be to augment the salary bills of Muslim media houses, freeing them to face running costs with less anxiety.

These funds will be allocated on a pro-rata basis – so a radio with 25 permanent staff members and 300,000 listeners will be entitled to a larger proportion than one, for example, with five staffers and 20,000 listeners.

Whilst my suggestion is that the monies should be spent on human resources first, should the media houses need funds for special development projects, the MCMT should have the mandate to grant an exception – but only if the better interest is served.

Naturally, the MCMT would have to embody the highest principles, and media houses would have to first qualify for the grants.

A successful application would have to be based upon criteria such as good book-keeping, audited audience surveys, compliance of licence conditions, consistent turnover, competent management, a proper business plan and appropriate labour practices.

Muslim media houses will not be allowed to have sole dependency on the MCMT, and as I’ve said above, will have to have proven records.

My instinct also tells me that each media house will have to administer their MCMT funds in a separate account served by officers who must have specific skills in the accounting, legal and HR professions. These people would not be allowed to be Trustees or Directors of the media houses in question.

This leads to some of the hard questions: how do we form the national MCMT? How much is needed? Who will be the players? And, how do we raise the funds?

It’s not a cop out, but I leave ideas and debate about the constitutional formation of the MCMT to those who know more than me. My suggestion is that it is served by competent professionals in our community, of whom there is no shortage.

As for funds, I’m looking at R5 million annually.

And before I’m shot down in flames of derision, let me explain. Is R5 million a lot of money? Yes, it is, and yes, it isn’t. In terms of social and human investment it’s priceless – offering empowerment, stability and peace of mind for our community media, as well as enabling us to create institutions. In terms of a bank balance, I agree, it’s a challenge.

But I cannot emphasise enough the need for a stable local media, and the critical role that it has to play. If one considers how much money the Zionist lobby spends on its agendas, R5 million (about 800,000 dollars) will pale by comparison.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a question of spending wisely on our most precious resource, human resources. And to crunch a few numbers, I estimate that R5 million is enough to double the pay annually of 48 of our journalists, managers and admin staff.

So who will be the players? Again, that’s something that would have to be open to discussion, but most likely Voice of the Cape, Radio 786, Muslim Views, Al-Qalam, Radio Islam, Radio IFM and Radio Al-Ansaar.

Channel Islam, to my knowledge, is commercial – but even media review agencies with a proven reputation, such as the Media Review Network, could be considered under this aid umbrella.

And the money?

Here’s a golden opportunity for the multi-million rand Halal industry to finally do something for us, the consumer who bankrolls it. It would be a perfect trade-off. But the best option, I suspect, would be to create a platform for national corporate social responsibility – again the realm of those more qualified than myself.

In conclusion, all that I’ve formulated is an idea – agree or disagree with me – but, surely, if we do nothing, we all stand to lose?



Monday, August 8, 2011

The Root Causes of the Somali Famine


THE 21st century has brought with it tremendous technological progress, but allied with predatory capitalism, has offered selective benefits.

Extreme rich-poor divides bedevil most developing countries that provide raw materials for this technology, and in failed states such as the DRC and Somalia, poverty has only deepened.

This century has also seen some of our worst natural disasters; many brought on about by the combined forces of man and nature. In Pakistan, 20 million people were directly affected by the floods of September last year.

Rampant deforestation of the Indus highlands could not absorb the heavy rainfall and an unseasonal early snow melt, which resulted in huge volumes of water gushing into the Pakistan lowlands.

Even in the Far East one has to ask how much less the impact of the Indonesian tsunami could have been had the mangrove swamps not been destroyed to build beachfront hotels?

And now in the Horn of Africa, 20 million Somalis are being affected by famine and drought. It’s alarming to think that in less than 12 months, 40 million people in the poorest parts of the world have been displaced by environmental disaster.

However, to understand these disasters we have to look at them in a wider context. This is because they are inevitably the consequence of more complex happenings. Global warming is a scientifically recognised phenomenon, but that doesn’t help us to understand the social, human perspective.

Science only deals with actions in a box called a paradigm, and can only look at events relating to that paradigm via a laboratory benchmark. To understand global warming and the Somali famine, man (and not science) has to be placed at the centre of things.

Our perspective is historical, because it is history that sheds the most light on causation. The truism is: nothing on this earth happens in isolation, and everything is inter-connected – from the strands of human thought over the ages to the dust of the Western Sahara blowing across the Atlantic.

The Somali famine, the symptom of a greater social and environmental mechanism, has its distant roots in the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries; religious wars that witnessed hundreds of thousands of people dying, and Mamluk armies finally driving the Franks back to Europe by 1290.

This encounter with the Islamic Orient – then the world leader in the arts, sciences, economics, music, medicine and philosophy – saw the birth of the European Renaissance.

And whilst life in the Sahel continued as before, and the universities of Timbuktu still produced some of the world’s finest scholars, events were already stirring that would begin to affect sub-Saharan Africa in unimaginable ways.

The Knights Templar of Jerusalem, the forefathers of modern Western banking and the Masonic movement, brought many ideas back home. Scholars such as Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon drank deeply from Islamic sources, but not before many of the Templars – in a mediaval sub-plot – had been executed by King Philip of France on Friday 13, 1307.

The adoption of the scientific method caused conflict with the church. Its leaders saw themselves as direct heavenly intermediaries. The idea of reason being superior to revelation was not only an anathema to them, but a threat to their political and economic grip on power.

Medieval scientists such as Galileo clashed with ecclesiastical authorities, and the rise of the Catholic Inquisitions in the 13th and the 16th centuries ensured that doctrinal tyranny reigned supreme. This in turn engendered a reaction against the church, with science often at odds with clerical authority.

This separation of science and religion is described by the late Maulana Fazlur Rahman Ansari as the “tragedy” of Western civilisation. Western civilisation was the “child” of Islam. But, as he says, it was a “disloyal child” as its progress, except for technology, was hostile to the moral direction that Revelation could give it.

This dichotomy became epitomised by the injunction of giving unto “Caesar what was due to Caesar and to God what was due to God”. With religion – and more importantly, its morality – divorced from economics, government and knowledge, it was a slippery slope to rampant materialism.

This materialism was accelerated by the Industrial Revolution that stirred in the late 18th century due to the invention of the steam engine. The iron and steel, textile, agriculture and transport industries were revolutionised overnight.

With the rise of industry and its need for workers and finance, it also heralded the era of “bankism”, the predatory exploitation of interest.

The urbanisation of Europe had begun, often accompanied by the discontent of the poor, who found life in the city largely dehumanising. Poor living conditions, low wages and exploitation dogged their existence, nothing new in terms of urbanisation today.

But what really changed the human landscape was the means of production. Mass production needed energy and that energy came from coal that pumped smoke and toxins into the air. London, for example, became infamous for its pea-soup smog.

It does not take rocket science to realise that from here on in, the global environment was never going to be the same again – and as technology got smarter, and its by-products messier, the destruction of everything around us just picked up speed. With his machines, man was now master of all he surveyed – without due consideration.

The advent of colonialism in the 19th century merely accelerated this process worldwide. To say that Africa was its worst victim is an understatement, if not a clich├ę. Already seen as a rich harvesting ground for slaves, the continent became the primary source of the developed world’s raw materials.

And whilst some of our ills in Africa are self-inflicted, it’s fair to say that the effects of climate change – due to the industrial revolution – are not. Indeed, the story of Africa is that the poorest of the world's poor are its worst victims.

Of course, the Somali situation has not been helped by the fact that it has been a failed state for 20 years. But its chronic underdevelopment is equally the result of colonial meddling and international fudging.

The calamity of starvation and disease in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel has been only added to by institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. Niger suffered a famine in 2006 after the IMF instructed the government to sell off its food reserves to service its loan.

But in Somalia, as children perish like flies from preventable diseases, the ongoing disaster is that people are dying of thirst above water aquifers. But the biggest tragedy, by far, is that those who contributed most to this crisis on the edge of the world’s largest growing desert will probably never pay back their debt.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Civil society: scoring a coup on the arms deal, Ncgobo and Malema


SOUTH AFRICAN civil society scored three important coups for the country recently. The judiciary and the media both survived challenges. And the multi-billion rand arms deal, something that has haunted us since the 1990’s, was given a new lease of life.

News that head of the Hawks, Anwar Dramat, had sent his people to meet European investigators is a dramatic about turn – especially after the unit had stated last year that further prospects of arms deal investigations were slim.

However, an admission by defence company SAAB of Sweden that its former British partner, BAE systems, had paid R24 million in bribes to South African officials has thrown new light on the case.

Already a victim of political cover-up, sleazy corporate suppression and legal obstructionism, the arms deal’s ultimate fate is inextricably linked to both the openness of the media and the autonomy of the judiciary.

For sans an independent judiciary and a free press, communities can have no measure of public oversight, or accountability, on things such as shady arms deals. When justice and information become compromised, nations become tied to the coat-tails of their political masters.

The point is that a functioning democracy is a human system, and if unchecked, will be continually vulnerable to human frailty. Correction will always be fundamental to the democratic process.

Public vigilance is the most vital element of clean government, and in South Africa, it is played out against the backdrop of the Constitution. In a functioning democracy, a judicial system separated from the state is the one that protects its citizens most effectively.

With regards to the judiciary we had the decision of Chief Justice Sandile Ncgobo not to accept an extension of his term at the Constitutional Court.

Chief Justice Ncgobo had initially agreed to the extension of his term. But after public outcry that his re-appointment via the President’s office – and not parliament – would be unconstitutional, he wisely decided to step down.

Saying that he feared impending litigation would compromise the integrity of his office and the judiciary as a whole, he said he had to “protect the office of the Chief Justice”.

His resignation closed the gate on the alarming precedent of President Zuma appointing judges. It also pre-empted unsavoury civic action highlighting the bungling of the President’s men, as well as the prospect of the Chief Justice being thrown out of his own court.

The coup for the media was when the City Press newspaper was able to successfully defend an urgent interdict in the South Gauteng High Court.

The interdict was to prevent it from publishing details of a secret trust fund used by ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, to bankroll a lifestyle not proportionate to his party salary. According to the report, Malema had used the trust fund to accept monies in return for political favours.

Judge Colin Lamont found that City Press’s story was in the public interest. Malema was a public figure, and South Africans were entitled to full disclosure on the matter of high-profile personalities.

But whilst developments in the arms deal and the Ncgobo story were distinguished more by principle than personality, the Malema saga has been defined more by personality than principle. And because of that, there are some important caveats.

This is due to Julius Malema being a larger-than-life figure, which makes him a soft target. As a reckless populist he is easy to hate, easy to like and easy to lampoon; with him there appears to be no middle ground.

For Afriforum, a white Afrikaner organisation, Malema falls into the “easy to hate” category due to his singing of “Kill the Boer” – and it is they who’ve laid charges of corruption against him with the Hawks.

In terms of his Ratanang Family Trust named after his 5 year-old son, Malema is the symptom (some would even say a victim) of a far greater malaise: the virus of money and cronyism that has so badly infected the ANC’s ranks.

Malema’s statements to the Mail and Guardian that people don’t care about his money, but more his political conscience, is merely reflective of the arrogant materialism of his seniors; people who years ago lost touch with the grinding poverty of ANC voters, 60% of whom a Markinor poll reveals are unemployed.

Malema’s further justification that he is a private citizen with no access to taxpayer’s money reveals, in a bizarre Freudian way, that it’s okay to take money from elsewhere as long as it’s not government.

But in the heat of legal battle will Malema’s followers, quick to rise to victimisation because of Afriforum, be allowed to remember this?

In Malema’s case the frustrating thing is that the lines between politics and law will be blurred. Or, as political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi points out, politics will enter the stage “dressed in drag” and “disguised as all sorts of noble intentions”.

Or to put it another way: if Malema stands in the dock, will he reduce his appearance to a political circus? Will t-shirted supporters, supplied with a free lunch, be ululating before the television cameras like they did at Zuma’s rape trial?

The other drawback, due to the inevitable glare of publicity, could be the further diminution of national debate on poverty, job creation and wealth distribution – something to which Malema has contributed only kindergarten clich├ęs and virulent hate-speech.

But when all is said and done, the ensuing investigation by the Hawks and the process of law must be allowed to follow its natural course. Malema, like any South African citizen, is innocent until proven guilty.

The triumph here is not the possible humiliation of a public figure, but rather the fact that the media – unfettered by the Protection of Information Bill – has been allowed to shine a light in a dark room, and that officials such as Malema have to be held accountable for what they do.

Pitfalls aside, it should send a resounding message to corrupt and greedy officials that if the guppies can be caught, so can the big fish too.