Monday, October 31, 2011

The Gilad Shalit Release: Weighing up the Positives

THE Gilad Shalit deal, Shalit’s safe conduct home from Gaza after six years of incarceration in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails is – without doubt – one of the more fascinating chapters of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But it has to be understood in context, something that has been lacking in the current discourse surrounding the event.

For when Gilad Shalit, a teenage member of an IDF armoured brigade, was captured in 2006 by the Al-Qassam Brigades who’d burrowed under the Gaza wire, the Levant was still in the control of dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, men who acted as mediators between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

These were Arab leaders who would unquestioningly see to US and Israeli interests. In 2006 perceptions were completely different to what they are now. A hard bargain from Hamas would have had little truck in Cairo, whose leadership would have seen Hamas with the same jaundiced eye as its own Islamic Movement.

When Shalit was captured in 2006, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had already overseen the end of the ‘Arafat era, and had ensured the death knell of the Oslo Accords by persisting with illegal settlement building on the West Bank.

With Hamas on the post 9/11 US list of terror organisations and PA President Mahmoud Abbas officially declared persona non-grata by Sharon, Israel had earned – as former aide Dov Weisglass would have put it – its “no-one to talk to certificate”.

But this was to prove a brief respite for the Israeli hawks, so reluctant to engage with peace or Palestinian statehood. Sharon was cut short by his stroke and a much weaker man, Ehud Olmert, would take his place.

In January 2006 Palestinians (on the urging of President Bush) were sent to the polls and defied the script by voting Hamas into power. The covert arming by Bush (as revealed in Vanity Fair) of the PA strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, did not result in the expected overthrow of Hamas.

By July of that year, Israel under Olmert had invaded Lebanon in response to niggling incidents in southern Lebanon. The IDF lost several of its crack troops at the hands of Hizballah, whose intensity of challenge – and incessant rocket fire into Israel – was something it had not been fully prepared for.

In spite of Lebanese infrastructure being destroyed and one million people displaced, the Arab street rejoiced in what it perceived was victory. Israel, the invincible, had been humbled by Hizballah.

This, I think, was the turning point in the region – the event that planted the seed for the Arab Spring. I was in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon during the war. For the first time ever, I saw the Arab world cursing its leaders in the streets.

And when Benjamin Netanyahu, carping at Ehud Olmert, told the BBC that he should have razed Lebanon’s cities to the ground, I saw people laughing. For those who had little left to lose after decades of dictatorships, failed nationalisms and disastrous wars, the feared Zionist entity had become a joke.

For Gilad Shalit in his cell somewhere in Gaza this would have meant little. But in the larger scheme of things it was a big moment. The plates had shifted under the ground and an earthquake was imminent.

For Israel, who shares long borders with Egypt, Mubarak’s fall this February was an unexpected blow. The murderous hand of Gaza’s Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the Mavi Marmara killings in 2010 had proved disastrous, and now in 2011 Israel’s go-to man in the Middle East had gone.

According to the Middle East Monitor’s, Dawud Abdullah, the diplomatic role of Egypt with regards to Israel and the US changed to a less subservient one after Mubarak’s departure.

Egyptian mediation became more attuned to Arab interest, and with the aid of Turkey, Hamas and Fatah met in Cairo in April. This was followed by the PA’s campaign at the UN to get official recognition for a Palestinian state.

Facing a restless Israeli constituency, Netanyahu had to confront demands for Gilad Shalit’s release. Always a politician, though, his move was well considered. Opinion polls in Israel showed 79% approval of Shalit’s release, in spite of the clamour saying he’d capitulated to terrorists.

Then there was the fine print for the release of the first 477 Palestinians, 42% of whom would be deported and 11% of whom would face some form of house arrest.

There were also unfulfilled expectations. Marwan Barghouti (FATAH) and Ahmad Sa’adat (Palestine Front for the Liberation of Palestine), the most prominent inmates of Israeli jails, were left out of the deal.

Both are seen as major role players in Palestinian politics and integral personalities to any future peace process. There are those in FATAH who feel that Barghouti, a popular youth figure, could be its next leader.

Whilst Netanyahu basked in the euphoria of the release of Shalit, and tried to play down the Israeli negatives, Hamas, FATAH, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP also claimed victory. Their cadres came home to heroes’ welcomes.

Unfortunately, Gilad Shalit’s release – a positive event – has evoked intransigent response in Zionist quarters. This has clouded the issue. Melanie Phillips of the British Daily Mail, for example, told her readers that Shalit’s release had marked the “end of the peace process”.

By dealing with Hamas the Israeli government had sidelined Mahmoud Abbas, she claimed, describing Palestinian celebrations as an “obscene joy” and that Israel faced “genocidal Arab rejectionism”.

But as Wadi Abu Nasser, head of a Haifa think tank, pointed out to me last week. Israel did not deal directly with Hamas, but through German and Egyptian mediators. As for the peace process, there was no peace process. Oslo had been extinguished by Sharon.

However, there are several lessons to be learnt from Gilad Shalit’s exchange. The first is that if you negotiate with an enemy that you don’t necessarily have to like, the sky doesn’t fall in. The second is that genuine political compromise is measured by its positives, because there will always be unfulfilled articles of desire.

Thirdly, Israel is no longer in the untouchable position it was in the Middle East before the Arab Spring. The landscape has changed, and the nascent Arab governments – facing daunting challenges – will be expected to be far more demanding with regards to the peace process and international law.

Indeed, if any victory be granted in the Gilad Shalit deal, it is by a nose length the Palestinian one.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Hajj visa selling scandal: Public Protector must intervene

South African Hajj pilgrims might well be up in arms about the illegal sale of visas and the alleged corruption of certain tour operators, but historically, Hajj rip-offs are as old as the Hajj itself, a sacred Abrahamic ritual.

Wherever people have journeyed to Mecca, carrying their precious silver, gold or cash, there have been predators waiting in the shadows. To visit Mecca during the lunar month of Dhul Hijjah is only incumbent on a Muslim once in a lifetime, but its hardships are legend.

Chronicles by mediaeval authors such as Nasir Khusrow, Ibn Battuta and Ibn Jubair talk of the dangers of Hajj travel, and relate heart-rending stories of people being robbed of their belongings and money en-route.

Hardly a century ago, the Hajji could not enjoy the guarantee of a safe return home. For most pilgrims, the Hajj would take several months of arduous travel by sea and land.

And if concerns about physical safety weren’t enough (Ibn Sa’ud only chased away highway robbers on the Jeddah-Mecca road in the 1920’s) there would be the challenges of malaria, bubonic plague, yellow fever, TB and cholera.

Air travel, inoculation and air-conditioned buses have certainly reduced the discomfort of the Hajj. But with it have come different challenges. Safety, comfort and the affordability of air travel have meant that more people can visit Mecca.

This is borne out by figures released by the Saudi Press Agency. In 1950, 100,000 pilgrims gathered on the plains of Arafat, the locus of the Hajj. By 1983 this number had increased to one million pilgrims.

In 1988 this led the Organisation of Islamic Countries (the OIC) to pass a resolution on Hajj quotas to ensure that the Saudi infrastructure could cope. This agreement, which allows a country to only send one pilgrim for each 100,000 persons, restricts the total Hajj quota today to about 2½ million – which is its limit.

Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country on earth, has a quota of 221,000.

For decades South Africa, with a Muslim minority population, existed under the Hajj radar. A special Saudi dispensation to South African Muslims during apartheid was that they could get visas on entry to the country.

This meant that the South African Hajj was not regulated, and each year an average 8,000 South Africans would perform its rites. By the early 1990’s our Hajj industry had grown to be worth more than R220 million annually.

In 1994 with the advent of diplomatic accord after apartheid, the South African Hajj landscape began to change. The South African Hajj and ‘Umrah Council (SAHUC) – recognised by the Saudi Hajj Ministry – was established to act as a regulatory body to liaise with the Hajj authorities.

Formed with the best of intentions by a former ANC parliamentarian, SAHUC was met with scepticism by the community, especially the Hajj agents who saw their turf threatened. Many slated SAHUC – whose executive members came from community organisations – as being incompetent.

Hajj numbers, however, stayed up. It was only in 2004 that South Africa was obliged to accept a quota, 3,500 pilgrims. In addition to these new restrictions, travel agents had to lodge sizeable deposits in Saudi Arabia, and abide by a code of conduct under which they had to be accredited by SAHUC.

Hajj totals were cut by half, and SAHUC instituted an online application system designed at grading pilgrims according to first time needs. The system was swamped and just over 10,000 applied for Hajj. Glitches in the system caused suspicion, allegations of nepotism and widespread dissatisfaction.

This led to the formation of an organisation called Hajj Watch, one that claims SAHUC is illegally constituted, has no mandate to represent pilgrims and should be disbanded.

With demand now outstripping supply by over 50%, smaller Hajj agents struggled to meet their commitments. The multi-million rand industry went into a tailspin. The attrition rate amongst Hajj operators would be high. Many went out of business or had to merge with bigger companies to survive.

For pilgrims all was not entirely lost as the Hajj Ministry would usually grant South Africans a further 1,500 visas just before the Hajj. This would bring the total up to 5,000 – but would still be 3,000 short of the average figure.

The additional visas, I was informed by Saudi authorities, came from poor sub-Saharan countries unable to fill their quotas.

But this year many prospective South African pilgrims were shocked. The Hajj Ministry – also having to deal with the logistics of a Mecca under re-construction – had strictly applied OIC diktats.

The OIC and the Saudis estimate that there are 2½ million Muslims here, and so the 2011 Hajj quota was 2, 500, the lowest ever. The additional quota of 500 was also the lowest ever too, and it left SAHUC facing an angry constituency, as it only met the needs of 10% of those waiting in the Hajj queue.

One can then imagine the fury of those in line when news broke that 11 Hajj operators had been fingered in a “highest bidder gets served” visa scandal. Hajj visas are issued free by the Saudi embassies and their sale is illegal. Visa corruption is the scourge of many a Hajj mission.

What has to be noted about visa selling locally is that it has been going on for years, even reportedly within the inner circle of SAHUC. In 2004 I exposed a visa tout on Voice of the Cape radio, as well as other cons by certain Hajj operators.

But with Hajj being a seasonal thing, passions soon wane after it passes. And that, combined with SAHUC’s constitutional limitations in punishing miscreants, has always been the problem in rooting out the offenders.

And never more urgent has the call been for agencies such as the Public Protector to intervene in the Hajj, a sacred South African Muslim institution that is not only riven with widespread dissatisfaction, but alleged malpractice.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hajj crisis: yearning for the traditional values

WHEN I first went to Makkah in the 1980’s I bought a ticket via Thomas Cook – no SAHUC, no agents, no problems. But then things were a lot simpler. The most direct air route to Jeddah was via Nairobi, where you hoped your transit would be brief.

We were then the world’s number one nasty nation, and Kenyan immigrations treated South Africans like dirt. We were not allowed to enter the country, and I once remember being stranded at the airport without food for 36 hours.

But challenges of that era aside, the process of getting to Makkah seemed so uncomplicated. I would simply book my ticket and go. Visas were obtained on entry to Saudi. Accommodation, which was cheap, was negotiated upon arrival.

I can recall staying in Aisha Bewley’s Bayt – the Arabic for “residence” – a stone’s throw away from the Makkah Haram for 10 riyals a night. Granted, it was a small room – but it had an air-con and a bed.

I use the word “Bayt” with fondness because that’s what we used to call accommodation in the Holy Cities. There was no such thing as a “hotel” with satellite TV, dinner buffets and obliging Bangladeshi butlers.

In fact, I’m probably the last generation able recall the old ways of Makkah and Madinah; an era when the locals, people like the late Sayyid Safi, were such gracious hosts. You felt you were a guest of Allah in the true sense of the word.

The old buildings were still standing, and the Wahhabis had not yet managed to flatten all the ziyarah places. In Madinah I can still recall walking a few blocks from the Haram, and discovering quaint old mud houses amongst palm groves filled with birds – and a magical world that reminded me of the Qur’an.

The neem trees hadn’t even been planted at ‘Arafat, and the Wahhabi muftis hadn’t yet put up the funny green boards saying it was against the Prophet’s (SAW) wishes to climb Jabl Thawr.

If I sound wistful, it’s not because I’ve airbrushed my travels to create a glossy, postcard of yesteryear. Indeed, there were challenges. The Wahhabi morals police would think nothing of smashing your cameras – or as I once witnessed, dragging a woman out of a phone booth during the adhan.

Reciting the Qasidah Burdah, or the magnificent Dala’il Khairat, in Madinah was enough to get the askaris – as we called the Haram guards – rushing to tear up your book. I heard lots of bida’h, shirk and kufr in those days – and once had my hands slapped when making du’ah at the Prophet’s (SAW) grave. I just ignored the askari and lifted my hands again.

But if I have to comment on my nostalgia, it’s because what I yearn for is the more soulful, traditional values of the Hajj and ‘Umrah. This is something that many Saudis have totally forgotten in their indecent haste to transform Makkah and Madinah into “Allah Vegas”.

I would argue that crass materialism and interest-based market forces have permeated into the very cloth of the Ka’bah. Many of our so-called Hajj agents and certain SAHUC office bearers, currently caught up in visa and other obscene scandals, are mere symptoms of this end-time malaise.

Mimar Sinan, the famous Turkish architect who renovated the Haram in the 16th century, was so in awe that he refused to build anything higher than the Ka’bah. Yet today Saudi developers boast about a multi-million dollar clock, a monstrous wart looming 1,000 metres over the Haram.

It seriously begs the question: where’s the spiritual respect, the old-fashioned adab towards the sacred environment?

Indeed, the same developers have kept quiet for years about the ecological havoc they’ve wreaked in the Holy Cities. Sewage now flows into Makkah’s oldest cemetery, the Jannat ul-Ma’ala. This is where Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet (SAW), lies buried.

How many pilgrims visiting Makkah nowadays know that the same developers, deaf to the ears of experts, damaged the well of Zamzam when rock-blasting? The BBC conducted chemical tests on Zamzam last year and discovered that it now contains arsenic.

The fact that residence near the Sanctuaries is only now for the pockets of the usurious elite is equally scandalous. The wealthy dwell around the Ka’bah in six-star, timeshare comfort. The rest of us exist on its periphery. Where is the egalitarianism of the pilgrimage now?

In 2004, when the Saudis last allowed me to enter the country, I could see all of this beginning to happen. The dust and destruction of engineering Armageddon had just started, and I remember desperately wishing that this time round, the developers would try and tastefully blend the past with the future.

Unfortunately, my hope for urban aesthetics was a vain one. The first thing to go was the historic Ottoman fort. This put huge pressure on the birthplace of the Prophet (SAW), a building demolished by ibn Sa’ud in the 1920’s, turned into a cattle-market and then rescued in the 1950’s by philanthropist, Shaikh ‘Abbas Kattan.

To this day no archaeologist has ever been able to dig at the site. This is the very last vestige of the old, sacred Makkah – now threatened by the unsympathetic concrete and marble expansion of the Haram.

Indeed, the house of Sa’ud enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the only regimes in history to have overseen its own cultural genocide, and to have consciously obliterated its sacred spaces in the name of a religious demagogue, ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab.

Today in Makkah and Madinah there is nothing to remind future generations of what was before. The ancient ziyarah spots, which could have been preserved in an environment-friendly modern renovation, have all gone.

The places where the Prophet (SAW) and his noble Companions prayed, fought battles, slept, brought up children, drank from wells and witnessed miracles to found one of the world’s greatest civilisations are blessed historical footprints that have been swept away forever, and we are all the poorer for it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Al-Shabab: the Taliban of the Horn

Part One, the Birth of the Islamic Courts Union

TWO weeks after we’d left Mogadishu, the wall next to which I used to make my satellite broadcasts in our compound was damaged in a bomb blast. A mere block away on Kilometre 4, the city’s most notorious junction, an Al-Shabab suicide bomber had driven an explosive-laden truck into a government building.

The attack was directed at the Ministry of Education, where parents and students had gathered to get news of bursaries offered by Turkey. Its prime minister, Recep Erdogan, had recently visited Transitional Federal Government head, Shaikh Sharif Ahmed, a former Islamic Courts Union member – and now Al-Shabab’s number one enemy.

The explosion had killed 70 and injured at least 100 – all innocent civilians, and the perennial victims of Somalia’s conflict.

Shaikh Ali Mohammad Raghe, Al-Shabab spokesperson, had warned his fellow countrymen to stay away from Transitional Federal Government institutions. He had warned of further attacks. Everybody in Mogadishu knew that he was deadly serious.

For during our brief stay in the capital of 2 million people AMISOM (African Union) troops had defused three IED’s (Independent Explosive Devices) and disarmed a 13 year-old suicide bomber.

Nightly clashes

The nightly clashes we heard from our compound were also a reminder that the battle for the capital was ongoing, as was the grenade blast near the Medecins Sans Frontieres office down the road.

Madina Hospital, where Gift of the Givers surgeons had worked miracles in a makeshift surgery, was overwhelmed with casualties. This bombing – the latest in a litany of Al-Shabab terror attacks – came after it had been driven out of Mogadishu by AMISOM forces in August.

Somalia is said to be one of the most perilous places to work on earth, with 32 journalists and numerous aid agency workers killed on the job since 1992.

We used to drive past the Ministry of Education, which is also near to the spot where only a week prior to our visit in late September, a Malaysian TV journalist, Noramfaizel Mohd Nor of Bernama TV, had lost his life.

Ironically, he’d not died at the hands of Al-Shabab – renowned for its antipathy towards westerners and its proclivity for killing fellow Somalis – but rather the nervous trigger finger of an AMISOM gunner atop a South African Casspir.

According to eyewitness reports, the journalist’s militia had swerved in front of the Casspir. And in a jittery part of town where questions have to be asked later, the Ugandan soldier had opened fire.

But this is Mogadishu, a dusty seaside city – once known as the “white pearl” of the Indian Ocean – reduced to rubble by 20 years of strife. In its edgy streets where killers do roam free, it’s the AK47 that gets respect. With its ever-ready militias and all sorts of shady gunmen, Mogadishu is like the Wild West on steroids.

But in spite of a lack of effective government, life does go on in Somalia. It is this indomitable spirit that has sustained Somalis, many of whom have found Islam the most coherent way to endure war, political failure and famine.

Somalia is a clan based society. Siad Barre – who grabbed power in a 1971 coup – was able to ruthlessly exploit the clans, and bring the country to its knees by 1991, leaving a power vacuum filled by warlordism when he was ousted.

However, it has to be remembered that Somalia is an African country, and that its traditional Islam is African. The lingua-franca and culture of Somalia is not Arabic, in spite of its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula.

Until Al-Shabab’s Salafi-Wahhabis tore it apart, Somali Islam enjoyed a tolerant status rooted in Sufism via the Qadiriyyah, Salihiyyah and Ahmadiyyah Orders. Kismayo, the southern port city now occupied by Al-Shabab, was known as a Sufi centre.

Clan life then, was a tapestry of tasawwuf, tradition and customary law. Called “Xeer”, Somali customary law is – interestingly – not entirely contradictory to Shari’ah. Totally indigenous, its approach is polycentric, and is based on patriarchal consensus and conciliation.

The major difference is that in a Shari’ah court the victim of murder, for example, will have a choice of the penalty, legal retribution or blood money. Under Xeer, the clan elder – and not the victim – will determine the response. Xeer also entreats just treatment of women and children, and looks at family matters, the handling of resources and the disbursement of charity.

An interesting aspect of Somali clan life is that whilst clan elders might have been swept up into the maelstrom of Somali politics, the clans themselves had internal mechanisms of social order – mechanisms which would not have been political.

This is something that is not understood sufficiently by analysts of the Somali compass. For when the first Islamic Court appeared in northern Mogadishu (a Sufi stronghold) in the 1990’s, the response was not a political one.

Civilians caught in the crossfire

Civilians caught in the crossfire of anarchy were merely looking at a non-political solution to what was a social problem. The initial focus of the courts – which then sprung up all over Mogadishu – were primarily aimed at order and harmony.

Another neglected aspect is the role of the ‘ulama, whose attempts at conciliation over the past two decades have not been given fair due. Few remember the efforts of the scholar, Shaikh Muhammad Moallim, in trying to get General Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi to lay down arms in 1991.

The Islamic Courts of Mogadishu were clan-based, but decided to merge in 2004, their control extending over the city and into the countryside. Tensions rose when the Sufi-orientated movement, Ahl us-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah, found itself at odds with the hard-line Salafi-Wahhabis.

In the meantime, the rise of Islamic consciousness on the Horn of Africa had started bleeping on the “war on terror” radar in Washington. A throwaway line by Usama Bin Laden to journalist Peter Bergen – that al-Qaedah had been present in Somalia since 1993 – saw the Bush regime creating a new frontier in Somalia.

In 2006 Ethiopia – claiming that it was a besieged Christian nation – invaded Somalia to crush the ICU and ruin the fragile peace. This invasion, backed by Bush, saw 600,000 inhabitants in Mogadishu being displaced. It also saw the creation of yet another Somali power vacuum – a vacuum into which Islamic extremism would rush to become an even bigger player.