Monday, May 25, 2015

ISIS is calling

THE notion that the Islamic State (ISIS), or Da’ish, would not extend its reach to South Africa has proved a false one. ISIS, which controls swathes of Iraq and Syria, has persuaded thousands of gullible youths from all over the Muslim world to migrate to its self-declared Caliphate.

This breakaway group from Al-Qa’idah has turned Islamic extremism on its head. Unlike Al-Qa’idah, which has focused on a “distant enemy” from caves and compounds, ISIS controls actual territory and has an active militia.

And whilst Sunni scholars world-wide have condemned ISIS for its heartless parody of Shari’ah, or Sacred Law, and its notion of an “Islamic State”, it has not prevented it from becoming an ideological reality bolstered by extensive social media support.

Its online magazine, Dabiq, presents a glowing depiction of jihadist utopia. But the gloss disappears when the Caliph urges Muslims to rise up and kill “crusaders” (Christians and Jews).

Essentially, ISIS’ message is that Islam is under threat everywhere; the world is a Dar ul-Harb, a place of hostility, and ISIS offers the only Dar us-Salam, or refuge. “If you don’t agree with us, you’re against us” is the gist of the worldview, which means that as a Muslim if you disagree with ISIS you become a kafir – an unbeliever whose blood, in their eyes, it is permissible to spill.

ISIS also promotes an apocalyptic vision of Syria, and claims that it is waiting for the end days and the final Islamic Armageddon when a leader, the Imam Mahdi, will appear.

ISIS rose after 2003 – and the US invasion of Iraq – as an Al-Qa’idah affiliate led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. He was a Jordanian jihadist with a criminal record, who refused to swear allegiance to Usama Bin Laden, and whose brutality even stunned Al-Qa’idah.

The rot was started by the Bush administration when Paul Bremer, the US presidential aide in Iraq, fired 250, 000 civil servants and government forces. Bush’s incompetence in then imprisoning many Iraqi officials created a political sinkhole into which the whole region collapsed as Iraq disintegrated.

Interestingly, General David Petraeus – who was sent to Iraq in 2007 as “Mr Fixit” – told the Assad regime that its sponsorship of a Salafi insurgency to undermine the US would come back to haunt it. Nouri al-Maliki’s government (2006-14) caused further resentment when he condoned Shi’ah sectarian patronage and allowed political neglect of the Sunnis.

It is more than anecdotal, reports the German magazine Der Spiegel, that the structure of ISIS was developed by a bitter, unemployed ex-Baathist intelligence officer, Colonel Samir al-Khlifawi.  Like so many Iraqis, he’d been quietly waiting to seize the day.

However, post-analysis does not serve present realities in South Africa. This is because although ISIS does have a decidedly limited appeal here, a few South Africans have been seduced by its propaganda and have travelled to Syria either to fight with it, or to migrate permanently.

In recent months, swirling speculation and rumour has coalesced into fact. In South Africa, ISIS is calling.

The first instance was earlier this year when the Daily Maverick interviewed via social media an “Abu Hurayra” from Gauteng, who claimed to be fighting with ISIS, saying that another South African “Abu Baraa” was with him.

Last month a teenage girl from Kenwyn was apprehended at Cape Town International airport whilst en-route to Syria. Hailing from a middle-class home, it emerged that she had been active vis-a-vis ISIS in social media. Someone who knew the family described her as intelligent, focused and difficult to dissuade.

With the family closing ranks, it has been a tough lead to follow. In addition, state security has either been unable – or unwilling – to explain to the media who gave the girl, a minor, guardian’s consent to board the plane. It is a missing link in the narrative. The question is: who was her handler?

A Spanish journalist following the story, Jaime Velazquez, believes that part of the answer might lie at school, but that doors have closed there too on the possibility of an educator playing a role.

In May the Roshnee community near Johannesburg was rocked by the revelation that more than 20 of its members had left for Syria. Eleven were arrested by the Turkish authorities and deported, but the rest reportedly got through.

A meeting expressing public concern was attended by over a thousand people at a Roshnee mosque and was addressed by local scholars, who explained to the congregants the theological pitfalls of the Caliphate.

Shortly afterwards, the Lenasia-based radio station Channel Islam International (Cii) received a letter, allegedly penned by South Africans with ISIS, criticising the scholars and telling them “to see for themselves” and not to believe the western media.

Close on the heels of the first letter, Cii published on its website an e-mail from a Rashid Moosagie, believed to have been from Port Elizabeth, and a member of another group that had reportedly migrated to Syria and the “promised land”.

In a rambling diatribe against what he perceived as reprehensible, polytheistic Indo-Pak Islamic culturalism, the author claimed that South African Muslims were apologetic capitulators, and that most local groups – including the spiritually inclined Sufis and the “Tablighis” who propagate faith to fellow Muslims – were practising unbelief.

At the time of writing, various role players in the community were scrambling to formulate a united and coherent response to South Africans being recruited by ISIS, one of the most brutal, the most unforgiving and the most distressing versions of extremism to ever hit our shores.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Undercover Muslim exposed

WITH Yemen in the news for arguably the all the wrong reasons, Theo Padnos' book, Undercover Muslim, a Journey into Yemen, takes on a whole new significance.

Published in 2011, just about the time US-Yemeni extremist Anwar Awlaki was vaporised by a drone, Padnos (formerly Peter Theo Curtis) takes us on a richly layered and personal tour into the heart of the real Yemen and its face of Salafism.

Almost no-one has succeeded in a first-hand English narrative account of the Salafi universe in the Arab world, one tempered by the austere, reductionist and extreme credo of the discredited Saudi scholar, Ibn Abd ul-Wahhab.

The story begins when Padnos, tutoring the inmates of a Vermont prison in poetry, shows them a YouTube video of John (Suleiman) Walker Lindh, the American Talib. This kindles in him the idea of seeking out the John Walker Lindh’s of the Muslim world.

He travels to Sana’a and as an English teacher, is able to get a job at a local government funded newspaper, the Yemen Times. His plan: instead of “wandering around in amidst religious feelings I could not understand” to learn Arabic and to study Islam.

Almost in the style of Richard Burton and others, who buried themselves in Muslim characters to avoid detection on their 19th century travels, Padnos “embraces Islam” and takers on the name, Thabit. He enters a madrasah where he encounters a community of youths seeking out their Islamic utopia.

There he meets “brothers” from Nigeria, France and England, and in the intimate living space of the madrasah, is quickly exposed to their idiosyncracies – and weaknesses.

An expedition with his friends in the upmarket sector of Sana’a looking for halal chicken (in a halal-friendly 99% Muslim country) becomes an understated, if not tragically side-splitting commentary on the kind of extremism that can so bedevil the Muslim world.

In another instance, his friend Said – inflamed with the Salafi notion that all images are forbidden – tears up an election poster of President Abdullah Saleh. In a matter of seconds both find themselves arrested and flung into jail.

On his release from prison, Padnos discovers that he’s passed some kind of credibility test. With his Thabit persona and the tribal acclamation of “Bani Mattari” (a kind of qat he used to occasionally chew) he could now travel to a madrasah in the town of Dammaj to the north. Dammaj had become a Salafi hub in the Zaidi-Shi’ah Houthi region.

With the Salafis regarding the Shi’ah as unbelievers, and the Houthis perceiving the Salafis as an ideological pestilence, their mutual antagonism was easy to understand. Funded by the petro-crat Saudis the Dammaj community was luring thousands of people from all over the world.

Padnos meets Jawad from Islington, a 14-year old banished to the Yemeni desert by his Yemeni refugee mother in England. Jawad had been dispatched to the “homeland” to quell his delinquent fires, but his adventurism and urban survival instincts are very much in evidence. 

Whilst Undercover Muslim is a personal journey, the author doesn’t intrude. Padnos allows his surroundings and his characters to tell the tale. Five years after Padnos’ departure from Dammaj, the Houthis would chase the Salafis out of town. And in another turn of irony, Padnos would be captured by Jabhat an-Nusra in Syria and held for six-months before being released.  

Although written in 2006, Undercover Muslim, a Journey into Yemen, is still very much a recommended read for those trying to understand why things in Islam are sometimes the way they are.

Undercover Muslim, a Journey into Yemen is published by Random House, London.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Forget Gaza now, please remember Yarmouk

The iconic image of Yarmouk's inhabitants queuing for food.
Courtesy: UNWRA
MY headline is meant to be provocative. If you get p***** off, good. It’s because I’m equally p***** by what is currently called “Palestinian solidarity”.  For so many years “Palestinian solidarity” has remained one-dimensional and fixated on the West Bank and Gaza – as important as they may be.

But there is a bigger Palestinian picture – and my contention is that it has been ignored.  The Palestinian question is not just about Gaza and the West Bank.

According to the UN there are twelve official refugee camps (there are more) in Lebanon (where about 800,000 Palestinians still live in stateless limbo). In Egypt 50,000 Palestinians cannot register as refugees, or be granted permanent residency. There are ten official camps in Jordan. Until occupation and ISIS there were over 30,000 refugees in Iraq and nine camps in Syria.

Today there are Palestinians in almost every corner of the world. In my own wanderings I have encountered Palestinians in Europe, the US, Libya, the Far East, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Africa. The real Nakba, the real Palestinian catastrophe, is that with seven million refugees we have the biggest poltical exile of modern times.

It is for good reason that the late Edward Said insisted that the Palestinian lot be called a “shattat”, or a “scattering”, as opposed to a “diaspora”. Palestinians were not dispatched stateless and dispossessed into the world because of a divine decree like the Jews, but because of a Zionist colonial project supported by Europe that forcibly displaced two-thirds of its population.

Therefore, I insist that there needs to be a more committed activist focus on the shattat. Those ignored outside the current Palestinian-Israeli paradigm need to be included, or else the whole delineation of being Palestinian will be framed by a notion that Palestinians don’t really exist outside of the occupied territories.

When I toured Lebanese refugee camps in the 1990’s researching my book, Surfing behind the Wall, I encountered open anger from people who told me they’d been forgotten the minute Yasser ‘Arafat and the PLO had left Beirut. However, I was deeply enriched by what I heard. Lebanon was a gripping chapter of Palestinian history I would not have got in Gaza or the West Bank.

And my reporting on the Zionist massacre of Tantura in 1948 would not have been possible to corroborate via independent Palestinian sources without the work of Mustafa al-Wali in the Syrian refugee camps. The same goes for what I learnt in Jordan about the Battle of Karameh.

But the most distressing instance of what I call “geographical amnesia” about Palestinians outside of Palestine is the tragic, bloody and brutal tale of Yarmouk, once home to 150,000 registered refugees and an equal amount of poorer Syrians who also lived there.

Yarmouk was recognised as a refugee camp in 1957 after the 1948 Nakba and evolved into a suburb of Damascus. Before the Syrian disaster, Yarmouk was a thriving commercial hub with shady streets, apartments, shops, restaurants, coffee houses, mosques, schools and factories.

All this was utterly devastated by the Syrian conflict, which overflowed lethally into Palestinian life.  Politically, as refugees, the Palestinians were neutrals – non-combatants who should have been subjected to internationally protective conventions.

Pleas at the time for Yarmouk to be declared a safe zone were blithely ignored as both the FSA and Assad’s forces fought battles in and around its streets. Attempts by those in Yarmouk to guard it from the conflict backfired when the FSA took control. In 2012 Assad besieged Yarmouk, denying the passage of aid and cutting off its water, electricity and food supplies.

Yarmouk, as The Guardian put it, became the “worst place in Syria”.  Entrapped by a circle of steel, those who essentially had nothing to do with the conflict, became its worst victims as they starved to death in the rubble.

Some analysts say that Assad’s brutality was prompted by fears that Yarmouk was less than ten kilometres from his Damascus headquarters. Others that he’d been angered by Hamas leader Khalid Mesha’al – who’d lived in Yarmouk – endorsing the Syrian revolution after he’d left for the Gulf.

The upshot was that Yarmouk would be subjected to unimaginable terror as the barrel bombs rained down. When the UN finally managed to get aid through in February 2014, so bad was the situation that officials had to go for trauma counselling. 

As one UN officer described it: “it (Yarmouk) was beyond inhumane.”

What was once one of Damascus’ thriving suburbs was now an eerily hushed Armageddon-like landscape. The 18,000 remaining Yarmouk survivors queued like ghosts in a spectacle as iconic as those of the Nazi camps – an exhausted, haggard and hungry mass of humanity crowding a broken street for food.

But sadly, the image – which featured prominently on the wires – would prove to be just another chapter in the tragic, but forgotten saga of Yarmouk. That picture alone should have sent Palestine solidarity movements marching in the streets of the world’s capitals in their thousands, yet it didn’t. There was a ripple of indignation, and then nothing.

Early this year Yarmouk was visited by the forces of ISIS now aligned with Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat an-Nusra, keen to use Yarmouk as a foothold to get into Damascus. Once again, those of Yarmouk were caught in the crossfire.

For those trapped inside, it was a question of changing tormentors from Assad to ISIS and the An-Nusra front, with a 16 year-old Amjad Yaquub telling an AFP reporter that ISIS goons had played “football” with a human head – at least Assad’s bullies hadn’t done that.

Historically, Yarmouk is one of our modern tragedies – a supreme irony given that in 636 CE Muslim forces, led by Khalid ibn Walid, defeated the mighty Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmouk. It’s a case of going from one of the highest moments to one of the lowest.
And this time there are no Zionists to blame; only Arabs, only Muslims and only us. 

Over 100, 000 Palestinians have disappeared, almost without trace, into the black hole that is now the Syrian refugee crisis. Our silence has been deafening and I would suggest that our complicity is complete.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Festival Voice of the Cape 91.3 FM, 2015

THE Voice of the Cape Radio Station annual festival has been running in Cape Town for nearly 20 years. Inaugurated as a fund-raiser, it has grown into an event of some proportion with stalls, exhibitions, tea gardens, stage events and live broadcasts attracting some 100,000 attendees each year. Pictured here is the opening night.

© Shafiq Morton, 2015