Thursday, June 30, 2011

New Palestinian unity - but how will Israel respond?

AS Europe reels from its debt disaster, and the Arab Spring turns into an exciting summer, Israel faces a crossroads.

With its political house stagnating in a quagmire of right-wing coalitions, its leadership now finds itself out-of-step in the region, and besieged by imaginary demons such as Iran – a country whose aged air-force it could wipe out in ten minutes.

The Middle East has changed, and as Israel’s point men in Arab states such as Egypt’s Omar Suleiman disappear, obstacles to peace and progress on the Palestinian situation melt away too.

This leaves Israeli hawks, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, facing a dilemma: for how much longer can they bluff and bristle that Palestinian leadership can’t be negotiated with?

This is because the divided Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, agreed to a unity deal in May this year. Largely brokered behind the scenes, it was a deal that would see the establishment of a caretaker government with an eye to presidential and parliamentary elections.

After the elections – and this is probably what spooks Israel too – is that there would be a concerted effort to open and rebuild Gaza, its infrastructure and economy shattered by years of attrition and siege.

This Egyptian-brokered pact has not received much international publicity, but its potential long-term effects could be far-reaching. With Israel having refused to talk to a divided Palestinian leadership, the ball will very soon be bouncing invitingly in it’s court – particularly in light of Hamas’s presence at the table.

Brokered by Egypt with the co-operation of Syria and significantly, Turkey, the conciliation between the two parties ended a destructive four-year stalemate, one which began when Hamas stunned Israel by winning the 2006 parliamentary elections.

With Israel proclaiming it would not work with a Palestinian government that included Hamas, an organisation whom it regarded as “terrorist”, sanctions and a Western-led boycott were instituted.

Things were further complicated by the Bush regime’s covert meddling in Gaza by supplying arms to Fatah, and Fatah security forces refusing to take orders from Hamas. A stand-off in Gaza resulted. President Mahmoud Abbas suspended Hamas’ government in 2007, and created an emergency one on the West Bank.

The Egyptian deal – apart from ending the Palestinian political impasse – has seen Khalid Meshaal, Hamas’s leader in exile, formally agreeing that the organisation would recognise Israel’s 1967 borders. This is an idea that had been floated from various Hamas platforms since the days of Shaikh Ahmad Yassin.

Meshaal’s stamp of approval is, effectively, recognition of the state of Israel – something demanded vociferously by Israel and the US as a pre-condition for settlement talks.

In addition, Meshaal agreed that Hamas – like Fatah – would abide by international law, the UN Charter and UN Resolutions on Palestine. To this effect, Robert Fisk of The Independent quotes Munib Masri, one of the chief intermediaries, as saying that Meshaal had also made undertakings on the nature of Palestinian resistance.

Resistance, Meshaal had said, would only be seen in the broader “national interest of the country” and would have to be ethical. In other words, there would be no more rocket attacks on civilians from Gaza.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction was predictably brusque, and he brushed aside any suggestion of positive developments. He said he would not talk to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as long as Hamas was in government.

But in 2011 the Arab street, that sociological chestnut, is no longer prepared to accept Israeli bluster. There are no longer pliant despots ruling in Cairo, Tunis and other capitals willing to enforce unpopular US-Israeli policy under the counter.

The clichés are fast being swept aside, and there are few Palestinians or Arabs anywhere, for example, who will agree today that the notion of pushing Israel into the Mediterranean will solve the Palestinian conflict.

Talk may be of resistance (resistance justified by international law), but it is no longer that of quixotic jihad or regional war. Israel, thrust into the midst of the Arab world by political events of the 19th century, is now seen as a political reality that has to be dealt with realistically.

What Tel Aviv’s policy makers have to appreciate is that the crude sabre-rattling days of Gamal Nasser, Saddam Hussein and the Islamists have gone. Sentiment from Amman to Ankara is that Mid East security will best be served by sound economic policy, military disengagement, political diplomacy and Palestinian enfranchisement.

Israel may indeed be the only Middle Eastern state with nuclear power, but in the region old-fashioned Cold War psychosis no longer has any intimidatory effect. The Arab world that has lost the terror of its own bloodthirsty dictators has also lost its fear of Israel.

It’s a new mindset, and one that must confound Tel-Aviv’s security establishment. Its hasbara of international jihad, Islamic terror and incompetent Palestinian leadership have become as anachronistic as the idea of an Arab Sheikh buying a new Cadillac just because his ashtrays are full.

But there is a fine distinction that has to be made here: Palestinians will recognise Israel as a political entity, but not as an ethnic state. This, apart from being racial exceptionalism, will deny the historical identity of Muslim and Christian Arabs within its borders.

This notion of a non-ethnic pluralistic state, of course, sends right-wing Israel into paroxysms about assimilation with Arabs, some passionately arguing that this could lead to the second Holocaust.

This is arrant nonsense. Nearly half of the Israeli Jewish population has Arab roots. Of course, what these people fail to understand is that it is not their Jewish identity that is under question, but rather, secularly-inspired Zionism, a late 19th century ideology of ethnic exclusivism.

In other words, what needs to be understood is that opposition to Israel is not, and never has been, anti-Semitic. Zionism is an oppressive political system that has denuded Judaism, not only of its Messianic expectation, but also of its dignity as a great monotheistic faith.

The great yearning in the Middle East is not for Jews to leave, but to cast off the cloak of Zionism, or ethnic exclusivism. Even Hamas, the bête-noire of Israelis, has declared that a distinction has to be made between Zionism and Judaism.

That the Egyptian deal has quietly changed the landscape of fractured Palestinian politics, and given it new focus, is undeniable. But whether it will have any meaningful impact upon Tel Aviv is, tragically, questionable.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Chilling Shadow

THE Protection of Information Bill or “Secrecy Bill” – its surreal passage through parliament now extended for a further two months – is an Orwellian creation befitting Animal Farm and 1984 as well as being a chilling shadow of the Apartheid era.

As an attempt to re-write the clumsy Access to Information Bill of 1982, the Secrecy Bill comes across as an exercise in political paranoia.

It’s a crude cut-and-paste overkill on the issue of government information, or as Public Service Minister Richard Baloyi would have us believe, “open content”.

Sifting through its legalistic gobbledegook, and its sinister clauses that promise to silence public review of government forever, a simple question is at its core: how should the state classify and de-classify information?

Of course, the question is relevant, but the answer – in the form of the current Secrecy Bill – is a draconian ass. In its present sweeping form the Secrecy Bill empowers public officers (from Director Generals to the President) to “classify” information.

The problem is that the Bill’s application is so broad: anything such as Home Affairs corruption or unauthorised Ministerial hotel bills, police crime stats, dirty arms deals – and even Schabir Shaik’s golf handicap – could be classified as secret, and buried away from public sight for 20 years.

Not only that, a whistleblower, an investigative journalist, a trade union official or any concerned South African citizen releasing “classified” information in the public interest can be jailed up to 25 years, with no option of a fine.

Even those privy to the information without acting on it, and who don’t report it to the police, will be liable for prosecution. This would lead to some interesting scenarios should a whistleblower post “classified” information on Facebook or Twitter, or should someone read the story in a newspaper.

On the other hand, a public official who abuses the Secrecy Bill to camouflage corruption, mismanagement or incompetency will only be liable to pay a fine, or at worst, face three years behind bars.

The carte-blanche powers that would be vested in the Ministry of State Security, which would have oversight in terms of the Secrecy Bill, are frightening. Like Big Brother, it would have to be in over 1,000 government departments at the same time.

Understandably condemned by a raft of NGO’s and public bodies, the Secrecy Bill’s most recent critic has been COSATU, which appears to have only realised the import of the Bill at the eleventh hour.

The voice of concern of ANC stalwarts such as Ronnie Kasrils needs to be noted too. For they would be able to tell ANC hacks, so forgetful of their Freedom Charter heritage, that the anti-apartheid movement spent decades fighting the kind of totalitarianism the party now wants to impose.

Opposition to the Secrecy Bill from ANC ranks may well reflect tensions from within; but it does begin to point towards the Secrecy Bill’s architects, who given the arms scandal and other issues, appear to be – like the President himself – extremely sensitive to public scrutiny.

But what has been so shocking about the Secrecy Bill has been its authors’ nagging inability to understand the basic principles of freedom of speech. Its fancy preambles about democracy are betrayed by the contradictory clauses that follow.

The Ad Hoc Committee in parliament may have changed “national interest” (a term that can mean absolutely anything) to a slightly more specific, but still hugely vague, “national security”. However, it doesn’t answer why “national interest” was considered as a viable legal term in the first place.

Other terms in the Secrecy Bill, such as “hostile activity”, beggar the imagination as to what exactly they could be.

The total absence of a public interest defence clause, the very bedrock of whistle-blowing, is a baffling oversight. Its omission sends an arrogant and ominous message to all South Africans, the employers of the politicians, who have a right to see competent legislation passed by those whom they voted for.

But as one observes the Ad-Hoc Committee in action, ruling party members as coherent about the Secrecy Bill as the Mad Hatter, it becomes obvious that as the one hole is sealed in the Bill, it begins to ship water through another.

This is exactly what happened to Apartheid lawmakers in 1950 when they passed the Suppression of Communism Act, a piece of legislation so wide that even the judges of the time had difficulty in applying it.

This was followed by the Terrorism Act of 1966 and the Internal Security Act of 1974. By 1990, those dealing with state information, or matters of public interest and protest, were governed by over 100 laws.

If the Secrecy Bill is passed, there is no guarantee that as it falls over its own feet the ANC government will not just ram through more and more legislation – exactly as the National Party did for 46 years – to cover the loopholes.

The sheer folly of the flight-path of the Secrecy Bill is seen in the words of an ANC MP, Vytjie Mentor. When discussing international examples of information classification, she argued that Zimbabwe was a good example.

This is a country where freedom of expression and the press are restricted by law to the point of absolute strangulation, in spite of the country’s Constitution promising otherwise. Mentor should not only be red-carpeted and disciplined by the Party Whip for foolishness, but also told to write out our Constitution 1,000 times.

For many, the Secrecy Bill has been portrayed as an issue between the government and the media. The truth is that the Secrecy Bill is not just about the media, but the right of all South Africans to know what those in power do in their name.

It’s an issue that cuts right across socio-economic and political lines. Every South African stands to be affected by it. And if the Secrecy Bill is passed in the form that some of our leaders insist, every one of us should have reason to fear for the future.


The poem below was an answer to a challenge by colleague Irfaan Abrahams. “Write a poem for the inaugural Cape Slave in Cape Town hosted by Itheko Athletics Club,” he said.


Except I forgot that I gave up trying to write verse over 20 years ago, realising that my attempts at poetry were usually pathetic.

The call is itheko, itheko

As far the eye can see

Amongst the clouds
I am infinity

I’m a sparrow hawk in a thermal
Gliding over the spirit of a Muslim saint

I think of the China Sea in full-moon
A trade wind ruffles its silver reefs

Dreams of my forefathers
Imprisoned, exiled for their beliefs

Whipped on by the South-Easter
White horses parade in Table Bay

Servants only to the elements
As the gale drops, they ride away

I’m Robben Island
I’m its shore

I’m the kelp-filled Atlantic
I’m its swell-filled roar

I’m the Tana Baru
My bones call to prayer

From the dungeons of the Castle
To the Lodge in Adderley Street

I’m more than just a
Minstrel, dancing on my feet

Bought under a tree
I was never sold

As a person I was always worth
More than my master’s gold

From the Grand Parade
To the Company Gardens

Your chains have never chained
Your whips have never whipped

The call is itheko, itheko

“The Big Occasion”

As far the eye can see
Amongst the clouds

I am infinity

Monday, June 13, 2011

Defending the Saints

THE other day on the Voice of the Cape radio station a maulana condemned a well-known Shaikh, a man regarded as a Grand Shaikh of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order.

His central beef was that this Shaikh had supposedly claimed amongst other things – via a website – that he was the Sultan ul-Awliya’, the Chief of the Saints. This is something that the Shaikh has never done.

Curiously, the Shaikh under fire, Shaikh Naazim ‘Adil al-Haqqani of Cyprus, has a famous invocation (also widely available on the internet) that has him asking to be “no-one and nothing”.

These are certainly not the prayers of a man claiming to be king. It’s unfortunate that the speaker concerned had not cross-checked his sources.

Since time immemorial, those close to Allah have had their characters and reputations darkened by clouds of toxic envy. Called hasad, it impairs for those near to it, the vision of the pristine truth that lies behind.

That’s why Cain slew Abel, and why Shams Tabriz had to leave his beloved companion, Maulana Jalal ud-Din Rumi. That’s why during the Abbasid era, Imam Ahmad ibn ‘Isa had to lead the family of the Prophet (SAW) from Baghdad to Yemen.

That’s why the Andalusian luminary, Ibn al-‘Arabi, was branded a “kafir”; why Sayyid Muhammad al-Maliki of Makkah was called a “deviant” by Shaikh Bin Baz, and how the great woman saint, Rabi’ah al-Basri, became a victim of fitna, or malicious gossip.

Indeed, the scenario is a familiar one, and the white-bearded Shaikh Naazim ‘Adil al-Haqqani – who is well into his eighties now – has been no stranger to personal abuse.

Shaikh Naazim, who has millions of followers, exudes a charisma that attracts people to him. This is enough to infuriate anyone made uneasy by such success – such as the Wahhabis (who detest Sufis), and certain Indo-Pak Deobandis (many of whose founding fathers were, ironically, Naqshbandi).

It is also a truism that whilst good attracts good – like bees to the stamen of the flower – it equally arouses the undesirable passions of the human heart.

To this effect, Shaikh Naazim is a Sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) from both the Hasani and Husseini lines. He also enjoys lineage to the 12th century Iraqi spiritual colossus, Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani (ra).

In a world obsessed with status, it’s a pedigree many would metaphorically die for. In the wrong hands, the prophetic and saintly DNA of Shaikh Naazim would be a ticket to great wealth and power.

And as we’ve already said: much as Shaikh Naazim serves as an axis for good, he equally has to suffer the slings and arrows of jealousy.

But the central point here is that Shaikh Naazim was inappropriately maligned on a public platform, and that the doubt created around his character needs to be removed.

I’m not a Naqshbandi, and so consider myself in an interesting position to defend him. As much as I love and respect Shaikh Naazim, he is not my Grand Shaikh.

However, I did get to know him on two different occasions. The first was in 1997 when his deputy, Shaikh Hisham Kabbani, invited me to come to the USA.

I was asked to be his photographer for an international conference, and to cover Shaikh Naazim’s campaign at the United Nations and Capitol Hill to lobby for better US awareness of the Balkans crisis and the Chechen war.

I also had the opportunity to interview Chechen leader, Aslan Maskadov, who would be later assassinated by the Russians. Maskadov, who was a follower of Shaikh Naazim, remains one of the most principled political figures I’ve met.

The second time I had the privilege of Shaikh Naazim’s company was when he visited South Africa in 2000.

In the US I stayed with his entourage, and as a photographer, was often a fly on the wall to Naqshbandi leadership. But not only that: I witnessed first-hand how a man of Allah conducts himself 24-hours a day.

In three weeks I never saw him miss one waqt, or prayer time, even when on travel. I never saw him skip the pre-dawn, or tahujjud, prayer – even if it meant sleeping two hours a night. He was twice our age, but his energy exhausted us.

I never saw him utter words of anger, turn anyone away or refuse hospitality in a crowded schedule. And not once in three weeks did I ever see him entertain any delusions of grandeur.

His consistent utterance was that he was a servant of Allah. I saw UN officials fall at his feet, a CNN journalist become Muslim at his hands, a crack addict say his kalimah shahadah, a Malaysian prince kiss his forehead and a member of Congress embrace him, but he would just tell them that he was their servant.

He possessed a wicked sense of humour, and once when we were climbing into a Washington taxi he laughed and said: ”Brothers, get your asses in.”

We were surprised, but only when he pointed out a sign on the taxi that had the abbreviation “Taxi Ass’n” did we realise what was amusing him.

I remember him looking at the Statue of Liberty in New York and saying, with a mischievous glint in his eye, that the headquarters of the jinn was in the head of Lady Liberty. Of course, he wasn’t serious.

I heard his dawn sohbas, or inspirational talks, his jumu’ahs and his public speeches. Not once did I ever hear him deviating in principle from Qur’an and Sunnah.

Unfortunately – and the truth has to be spoken – there were some around him who would unnecessarily exaggerate, or attribute things to Shaikh Naazim that I knew he would not be happy with.

Sometimes a Shaikh’s worst enemies are his own followers, those who still have to learn the niceties of Tasawwuf, which is a spiritual science based on Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. For Shaikh Naazim’s enemies this was fodder for their enmity, and they would forage upon it mercilessly.

In Cape Town, I saw a continuation of his enduring devotion. And whilst I’ve often observed his vast intellectual capacity, his approach – in tune with Prophetic Tradition –has always been to be accessible to whatever audience he has addressed.

“Sidi Yusuf, are the Angels smiling or not?” he once asked Shaikh Yusuf Da Costa, turning to us and saying that that indeed, they were smiling because the Prophet (SAW) smiled as part of his adab, or conduct, towards Allah’s Creation.

In fact, if I were to summarise the status of Shaikh Naazim I could do no better than to recall the Hadith related by Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud that if the Muslim is pleased with Allah, with Islam as his faith and with Muhammad (SAW) as his Messenger, then Allah will be pleased with him.