Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring, is now the largest source of foreigners fighting with the Islamic State. Prior to the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government maintained a half-century of aggressive secularism, banning the veil and most displays of piety, as well as jailing thousands of suspected Islamists. After the uprising, the moderate Islamist-led government introduced new religious freedoms, which were then exploited by Islamist radicals to incite violence. The government has responded by emphasizing public security, and this in turn appears to be generating repression and anger that further fuels the cause of the radicals. The lesson to be learned here is not that religious freedom is a cause of radicalization in Muslim-majority countries, but rather that when populations are denied religious freedom for extended periods of time, they become more susceptible to the destabilization of peaceful religious practice in favor of violent religious extremism.
A fascinating new report on religion, violence and peace from the Institute for Economics and Peace looks closely at common views of religion propounded by the the media — and finds that most of these views do not check out:
* Despite so much news on religious terrorism, religion is not the main cause of conflict in the world today.
* A country’s level of religious belief — and its level of atheism for that matter — does not determine its propensity toward conflict.
* The demographic spread of Sunni and Shia Muslims explains far less violence than one would think at first glance.
* Factors other than religion are far better correlated with violence. Religious repression, though — both from the state and from society — does explain violence. Religious freedom, then, is strongly supported as a desired goal.
* Religion can and does play a positive role in peacebuilding.
The case of Yara Sallam, Egyptian human rights activist and graduate of the Center for Civil of Human Rights’ LL.M. program, came to a denouement today when an Egyptian court sentenced her and 22 other activists to three years in prison and a 10,000 Egyptian Pound fine. Here is the story. Let us keep her in our prayers and remain in solidarity with her and her comrades.
In what is being hailed as a rare victory for female victims of sex crimes, a judge in Kabul has sentenced an Afghan mullah to 20 years in jail for the brutal rape of a 10-year-old girl in a mosque. Although the mullah threatened to kill the girl and her family if she told anyone, she suffered wounds that could not be hidden. In a country where victims of sexual assault can themselves be prosecuted and sent to jail, this is a notable and important win for justice.
Meanwhile, in Iran, a 26-year-old woman sentenced to death for the 2007 killing of her alleged rapist has been executed. The woman, Reyhaneh Jabbari, claimed that the killing took place in self-defense during a sexual assault. The sentence had been protested by human rights groups and Iranian activists, and the U.S. State Department condemned the execution, questioning the fairness of the trial (including reports of confessions made under severe duress and possibly torture).
Experienced American interrogators along with other intelligence professionals and senior military leaders are collaborating to oppose torture. Human Rights First recently released a statement which has, as of the time of this blog post, 21 signatories. I am one of them. I believe we should “Support Interrogation, Reject Torture“.
The central message of the October 2014 Human Rights First statement is:
“Torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are illegal, ineffective, counterproductive, and immoral.”
Our media have been filled with opinions about this highly sensitive issue, with profound moral implications, from many pundits with no experience in the field of national security, to say nothing of experience in interrogation itself. This needs to change. As this new Human Rights First statement makes clear, debates about interrogation, “should be informed by the real-world experiences of professionals in the areas of counterterrorism, interrogation, human intelligence collection, and national security policy.”
Our real-world experiences and more tell us that “Torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are illegal, ineffective, counterproductive, and immoral.”
Ottawa is my home, but yesterday I was in Toronto. Today I’m in Washington, reading words from friends, texts, phone messages, about where they were, that they’re shaken, unsettled, but fine. My friend and former colleague Peter Stockland was there, and I’ll share his words verbatim, because they’re as good as I’ve found, from the Cardus blog this morning:
Toronto Liberal MP John McKay was, at that moment, the admirable embodiment of the honest politicians who lead us.
“That is an excellent question,” he said. “I have absolutely no idea what the answer is.”
We were standing at the corner of Metcalfe and Albert streets in Ottawa, a few hundred metres south from where a gunman was shot dead in the Hall of Honour of Canada’s Parliament and a few blocks west of the War Memorial, where Hamilton-based soldier Nathan Cirillo had just been murdered by that same gunman.
The question put to McKay was the obvious ambient mystery of the day: how on earth, after killing Cirillo in broad daylight, could that gunman have made his way onto Parliament Hill carrying a loaded long gun, then gotten past Parliamentary security into the building itself?
Because of the location of the Liberals’ weekly caucus meeting room, McKay and his colleagues were able to exit the building, unlike their Conservative and New Democrat counterparts who barricaded themselves inside rooms that flank the entrance hallway where the shooting occurred.
He was close enough, though, to hear the “pop, pop, pop” of gunfire—“more than three, fewer than 10”—which he thought was the sound of construction work before he was ordered to dive for cover.
And, having made his way to safety, what was McKay doing? His duty. He was standing patiently talking to a group of reporters in a “scrum,” trying his best to explain what had just happened, openly acknowledging what he did not know. To state the blindingly obvious, he was experiencing shock from the terror mere moments old. He had to fight to control tears. Yet he did his polite, deferential, instinctive duty to communicate, through the media, what he could to his fellow citizens.
Another ambient mystery already percolating even as police teams swarmed through cordoned-off downtown Ottawa hunting no-one-knew-what was: Will this change us? Will we be a different Canada the day after than we were in the minutes before the killing of Nathan Cirillo, the gunfire assault on our Parliament? Watching the sheer, utter normalcy of John McKay dutifully answering questions at the confluence of the chaos, I knew the answer was “no.” It won’t change us. Why? Because we are Canadians.
To say that we are Canadians is not to say that we imagine ourselves as some agglomeration of super heroes—or hyper stoics—immune from the vicissitudes of an outside world gone mad. To say that would be to say that being Canadian is being delusional. In our hearts, if not always on our lips, we acknowledge we have no such immunity. To pretend we believe otherwise is either myth making or mischief making or both.
We know, in our present moment and in our history, that we are indelibly, painfully marked by the world. Nathan Cirillo was guarding our War Memorial when he was killed. In less than three weeks, on November 11, we will lay wreaths there as an act of memory for those who died doing their duty all along the boundary where the world touches Canada. We will be reminded, contra myth makers and mischief makers, that we are a people who fight and die to stand on guard.
We are known as a polite and deferential people, because by and large we are. During Wednesday’s events, a group of us snuck up to a spot outside the National Arts Centre to watch activity at the police command post. Spotting us, an officer rushed over and ordered us out, telling us that we were putting ourselves in danger.
“You don’t have to shout,” I said. “There was nothing that said we couldn’t be here.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but you’ll have to move.”
I’m sorry but you’ll have to move. In the middle of that emotional tinderbox. I have been in other countries where the response in such tense circumstances was a gun barrel pointed at my head.
Though we are dutifully deferential, however, we do not defer to fear. We never have. I believe we never will. There is something in us, as people, that will not admit it.
Sure, there will be reviews and inquiries and reports and reassuring sounds that we’re looking into it so it never happens again. Sure, there will be “security upgrades” for access to Parliament Hill, whatever that means in an age where, as Wednesday’s events proved yet again, security means enduring time-consuming inconvenience to obtain the illusory comfort of the impossible.
But we will not be changed by fear. And if the question of how that is possible when much of the rest of the world reacts by hunkering down, blockading in, assuming the protective position, is put to us, we will answer, following the admirable lead of our honest politicians: “That is an excellent question. We have no idea what the answer is. We’re just being Canadians.”
Egyptian dissident and graduate of the Center for Civil and Human Rights’ LL.M. program in human rights Yara Sallam was mentioned in a column today on repression in Egypt in the New York Times. We’ve been tracking her plight here at Arc of the Universe; word has it that she will receive her verdict in a few days. She is in our thoughts and prayers.
The column details vividly the repression of the el-Sisi regime, not to be obscured by his recent address at the United Nations or by slick advertising for the “new Egypt” in Times Square. Resonant with this blog’s stress on religion and politics, one might say that Egypt has gone from the repressive secularism of Mubarak to the Islamist repression of Morsi back to the repressive secularism of el-Sisi, who has jailed some 16,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s not just about religion, of course. The hopes for democracy of the Arab Spring have been quenched for the foreseeable future. Sallam is being tried for exactly the sort of protest that gave the world such great hope during the Arab Spring.
The Globe and Mail reports that the young man identified as the shooter in Ottawa at a war memorial and at Canada’s Parliament building had “caused frictions with the elders at the house of worship, who asked him to stop attending prayers” at the mosque in Burnaby, British Columbia. This is exactly the opposite of what one would hope for when a young person is heading off the rails. It is precisely the local community which has the best chance to identify and work with such individuals.
Yet engaging young people who begin to be disruptive in a local community is no easy task. More needs to be done to provide local communities with encouragement, education, and resources for engaging youth who are troubled and troubling, and who may at a point of starting to find extremist ideology attractive.
Counter-terrorism researcher Dr. Clarke Jones at Australian National University has criticized a new “Team Australia” campaign, urging the Australian government instead to support “community based” programs. “The government has to knuckle down and dedicate funds to interventionist programs,” asserted Dr. Jones. This includes developing programs which can provide role models and address issues of identity. Also Dr. Jones maintained, “”If you are talking to these people you’ve got to address some of the reasons why they feel disenfranchised in the first place.”
In the U.S. the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) has launched a program to provide thoughtful resources to local communities. The MPAC effort is called the “Safe Spaces Initiative“. MPAC explains, “We believe that, in order to keep our nation safe, the American Muslim community must take a proactive approach to identifying and intervening individuals who may be susceptible to violent extremism.” With its Safe Spaces Initiative, MPAC seeks to foster greater understanding of violent extremism in local Muslim communities and provide these local communities with tools to counter this. MPAC deserves credit and support for this excellent initiative.
Violent extremism comes in many forms. This need for encouraging and assisting local community engagement applies to various types of movements. Overall more effort, resources, and research need to go into finding ways for local communities to be the dead end, not the starting point, on the (hopefully only would-be) road to violent extremism.
An earlier post brings attention to John Gray’s criticism of secularists’ common view that religion is is both disappearing and inherently violent — a criticism with which I heartily agree. Sometimes, though religion IS violent. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Central African Republic. This dynamite piece of journalism by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker tells the story of how the country’s Muslims took over the government and terrorized the population and were then resisted by Christians, who engaged in brutal revenge killings.
Even here, though, can be found examples of religion manifesting mercy and reconciliation, crossing boundaries through courageous initiatives of healing and refuge. Anderson tells of the work of Father Bernard Kinvi, who has assisted thousands of the wounded without regard to whether they are Muslims or Christians.
I commend the piece, which makes for both inspiring and gruesome reading.
I was distressed to read that a Pakistani high court upheld the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy. Typical of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, the charges were flimsy, the punishment is wildly disproportionate, and the case has begotten further violence, in this case the murders of two politicians who came to her defense, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minority Affairs Ministry, Shahbaz Bhatti. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws arose during the 1980s in the wake of an Islamic resurgence. Bibi remains in solitary confinement as she awaits appeal.