Thursday, October 29, 2015

UFO’s or Unidentified Aerial Performers?

Lens flare? Many sightings have reason, many don't.

WHEN I was younger, and bright-eyed about the wonders of the world, I would read about UFO’s or Unidentified Flying Objects. I was fascinated by the idea that we were not alone in this huge universe.

I delved into all the conspiracy theories of my youth: extraterrestrials were our friends; extraterrestrials were our enemies; extraterrestrials were worried about the nuclear bomb; extraterrestrials had landed and extraterrestrials, a la the Men in Black, were amongst us.

I devoured books like Eric van Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” and Robert Charroux’s “Masters of the World”. I raced through titles such as “Sungods in Exile” and “Extraterrestrials are Among Us”. I waded through less dramatic UFO publications that analysed data, even discrediting cult populists preying upon our gullibility such as George Adamski and Billy Meier.

Adamski, the pioneer of “tabloid Ufology”, produced the first “detailed” photographs of UFO’s in the California skies in the late1950’s. But when he claimed that he had contact with a Venusian astronaut, Orthon, and that there were cities on the dark side of the moon, he was condemned as a crackpot.

Meier, a Swiss farmer who claimed he had contact with a Pleiadean civilisation, was put under scrutiny by Ufologist, Karl Korff, and later denounced as a “scumbag”.

Then there were the infamous crop circles, originally punted as extraterrestrial communication but later revealed as an elaborate hoax by its British creators, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley.

Impostors, New World schizophrenics and pranksters aside, there is an undeniable and overwhelming body of evidence that points to inexplicable occurrences in our skies. These things have been happening in the heavens for thousands of years. Even one of the ancient Pharaohs, Thuthmose III, reportedly observed UFO’s.

Statistically at least, say scientists, given the size and scope of the universe, there has to be some form of life on other planets. Carl Sagan, the US astronomer, spent the latter half of his career searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. But two decades later, Sagan’s hypothesis has yet to be proved.

And if anything, the innate wonder and uniqueness of the earth has only become more pronounced as space missions probe deeper and deeper into the primordial soup of the universe.

Over the years I have learnt that “flying saucers” is a misnomer, as in reality UFO witnesses do not always see saucer-shaped objects. I have also learnt that many sightings are not UFO’s, but human phenomena such as weather balloons, car headlights, satellites, camera flares, police helicopters and military aircraft.

Other sightings have proved to be natural phenomena such as meteor showers, lightning balls, odd shaped cirrus clouds, comets and strange luminosities resulting from tectonic activity, something which scientists call “earth lights”.

In fact, only a small percentage of reported anomalies in our skies have turned out to be occurrences deserving the UFO moniker, but they still number in the thousands worldwide each year. And whilst most observers feel that UFO sightings, close encounters and abductions are not a matter of faith, the 19th century psychologist, Carl Jung, has always argued the opposite.

As a journalist who frequently works in the religious milieu – specifically the Islamic one – I must admit I’ve had to be cautious in dealing with paranormal matters. When you’ve had to confront people claiming to be risen prophets and end-time imams, a healthy dose of scepticism is the safest distance from the subject.

However, whilst authentic Islam fully recognises science, it also acknowledges a theological construct of the world. According to this paradigm, creation has three existential dimensions: Angels, jinns and humankind.

Angels are made from “divine light”, jinn are made from “smokeless fire” and man is made from “clay”, a pre-scientific term for protoplasm. The jinn – or genies – dwell in what is often described as a “parallel universe”. They can see us, but mostly, we can’t see them – although they can cross over into the human dimension.

Traditions say that Solomon was given dominion over these shadowy beings via a divine, talismanic ring. The genie under his control could move from place to place in the blink of an eye. According to Muslim scholars, jinn have been given good and bad natures. Satan is said to be a fallen genie that had enjoyed the company of the Angels.

But what has this got to do with UFO’s?

Genies are said to be of the land, the sea – and, more significantly, the air. It begs the hypothetical question (to which I don’t have the answer) whether the UFO phenomenon is the manifestation of an inner universe, or another genie-type dimension. Could the utopian societies so often described by alleged UFO abductees be nothing less than wishful, revelatory dreaming?

Carl Jung is long deceased, but I’m sure if he were still alive, his grey head would have nodded in agreement to this notion of a collective, cultural sub-consciousness in which we all aspire to a better world – albeit via an extraterrestrial paradigm.
So I’m sure you can imagine my surprise, that after having examined the UFO phenomenon as rationally as possible, I would be subjected to a UFO sighting myself.

It happened on the evening of the 29 January whilst camping at Bains Kloof in the Western Cape. I was sitting facing the sky through a gap in the trees. The time was about 8, 30 pm and the constellation of Orion’s Belt had just appeared above the mountain slopes opposite me. It was full moon, but it had not yet risen over the valley, although I could see it beginning to brighten the sky from behind the mountain.

Suddenly to my right in the eastern heavens, at the level of Orion’s Belt, I saw a moving light. Expecting it to be a shooting star, I quickly drew attention to it. But there was no flash across the heavens. We could then see that the light – it was the size of a star – was travelling at immense speed.

As it traversed in a westerly direction (from my left to right) another one shot out of the heavens from the west and crossed paths with the first one. These could not be aircraft. Not only did the lights have irregular flight paths, they were either very high up in the earth’s atmosphere, or in deep space. Then there was their speed. These objects were travelling at a velocity I’d never seen before.

After crossing paths, the lights disappeared. At least eight people besides me had just witnessed the event. Someone went to fetch a pair of binoculars. As I scanned the skies, a passenger jet to the far west began its descent to Cape Town international airport. With its flashing lights and fuselage, its speed was less than pedestrian compared to what we had just seen.

SAA, Comair, Onetime or Mango could never be mistaken for a UFO.

But the show was not over yet. For another light sped out of the east, and without deceleration, zigzagged, and finally dimmed past Orion’s Belt. Through the binoculars I could see that the object was in space, and that its sudden direction changes seemed to defy the laws of physics.

As the moon brightened the sky, throwing the surrounding mountain peaks into sharp silhouette, we saw no further activity in the skies. It was time for coffee and biscuits.

So what had we just seen? I have no rational explanation. Were these lights Unidentified Flying Objects? Yes, they certainly were – but I’d like to give them another classification, “UAP’s”: it stands for “Unidentified Aerial Performers”.

Photo Copyright Shafiq Morton.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

HAMAS in South Africa: opening a new discourse?

Mesha'al addresses Cape Town audience. Photo Shafiq Morton.

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS after President Jacob Zuma’s historic meeting with HAMAS leader, Khalid Mesha’al, to cement formal relations, the people of Cape Town were addressed by Mesha’al at the Dar ul-Islam school campus on Wednesday (21 October).

The rally was attended by David Mahlobo, State Security Minister, Zola Skewiya (former Minister of Social Development), Marius Fransman, ANC head in the Western Cape, and officials from the Cape Town-based Muslim Judicial Council.

With the ANC traditionally enjoying warm relations with the PLO during its apartheid exile and its post- apartheid rule, the move to recognise HAMAS has been seen as a significant policy move by South Africa’s governing party.

Said the ANC’s Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, “We are starting a relationship with Hamas…we are happy today we are together, we are formally formalising our relationship. We’ll exchange delegations, we’ll share experiences and we’ll talk to each other regularly.”

The visit has been condemned by the South African Zionist Federation, which has accused HAMAS of being opposed to the principles of the ANC, as embodied in the 1955 Freedom Charter. The federation’s statement suggested that Hamas wished to destroy Israel and sought “to establish an Islamist dictatorship in its place.”

The ANC – which adopted a directive to identify with the Palestinian struggle in 2012 when it declared its full support for the BDS campaign – reaffirmed its commitment to Palestine at its recent National General Council meeting this month.

The HAMAS visit comes after behind-the-scenes lobbying by community figures and a diplomatic visit to Gaza by then deputy Foreign Minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, in 2010. Ebrahim – a former anti-apartheid struggle stalwart – met with HAMAS minister, Mahmud al-Zahar, in Gaza.

Political observers feel that the ANC, as a formerly banned movement deemed terrorist in its day by the US and the UK, is uniquely placed to share its negotiating skills on the art of getting the best out of a powerful and intransigent foe. As a formerly armed resistance movement, it is said that the ANC would also be able to contribute to the Mid-East imbroglio with substance.

The ANC did host the Palestinian Authority with full state honours in Pretoria late last year where there is an accredited PA ambassador. But sentiment in South Africa has turned to the view that the idea of a two-state solution needs to be revisited. Israel’s creating of facts on the ground through occupation (deemed illegal by the UN) and constructing the apartheid wall (also deemed illegal) has made Oslo unworkable.

Most South Africans, not unfamiliar with apartheid-style territorial fragmentation as in the West Bank, can only see a “Bantustan” landscape and permanent disenfranchisement arising out of the two-state solution.

It is felt that the two-state solution would simply entrench the old status quo of Israeli control of Palestinians, and would leave the West Bank divided into at least twenty cantons and multiple border posts. In other words, Palestinian freedom of movement and economic activity would be forever be policed by Israel in an unequal, if not militarily dominated, relationship.

It is in this light that it is believed the HAMAS visit to South Africa is an historic occasion, an occasion that could open the door to a whole new discourse on the Palestinian question.

This has happened much to the chagrin of Israeli shills in the opposition Democratic Alliance and African Christian Democratic Party, whose only response to the Mid-East crisis is the two-state mantra and largely unconditional support of Israel.

Whilst Mesha’al firstly dealt with the predictable issues – such as occupation, the intifadah, the praising of Mandela and the ANC and the very real dangers of Israel’s meddling with Al-Aqsa – he did touch on some other topics in his address to the 2,000-strong audience in Cape Town.

Largely under-reported by the media, the second part of his message would have been heard by those who needed to – even though they would very likely deny he said them due to them not fitting the snarling terrorist, let’s annihilate Israel, typecast.

This is because Mesha’al went on to define a vision that communicates a take on the world that decries not only HAMAS’s right wing, as it were, but puts to bed the reactionary stereotype.

Islamist movements have been under fire since 2011 and a surge of popularity that soon waned, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, where voters have become less concerned about Shari’ah-centrism and more about security, competent leadership and bread and butter issues.

Also the rise of ISIS and apocalyptic extremism – usually attributed to HAMAS as well by Fox News and Israel – has affected Muslims, Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria.

Addressing the youth, he said that the world had become a confusing place. There was now tremendous confusion between extremism and piety. Don’t mistake extremism for piety, he warned. “Don’t become a victim of confusion.”

Mesha’al also said there was a significant difference between resistance and terror. “We never kill one another on the basis of our differences. As Muslims we just don’t do this.”

He went on to say that South Africans had achieved their rights. Palestinians were proud of South Africans. 

“Preserve your gains, keep your unity. Unity is road to success. Stand side by side with the ANC that fought for your liberation. Be good citizens in your own country. There is no contradiction in being a good citizen and supporting justice elsewhere. This makes you effective in supporting other struggles,” he said.

To the predominantly Muslim audience Mesha’al said there was no contradiction between being a good Muslim and a good citizen. This was the Prophetic example for Muslims set by Muhammad over 1,400 years ago.

“As Muslims, as South Africans, be of those who lead the way in everything,” he said to applause.

All photos copyright by Shafiq Morton

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

ISIS and the Fox journalist who got the wrong town

FOX NEWS – the brainchild of the sullied media mogul, Rupert Murdoch – may have a high viewership in the US, but it does enjoy a reputation for being irresponsibly tabloid, anti-Muslim and crassly conservative. 

So much so that TV host, Jon Stewart, once challenged Fox to a “lie off”.

So when Fox’s Johannesburg correspondent, Paul Tilsley, broke what he claimed was an exclusive story on ISIS in South Africa, I knew I would not be disappointed.

Leading with an unsubstantiated statement that “at least one South African a day” was joining “ISIS or Al-Qaeda affiliates to fight in Syria and the Middle East”, Tilsley claimed that Mayfair – one of South Africa’s most cosmopolitan suburbs – had suddenly become a no-go zone for non-Muslims.

Basing his assumption on a selective statement by the Iraqi ambassador, Dr Hisham al-Alawi, that two alleged South African ISIS fighters who’d died in Syria had come from downtown Johannesburg, he’d taken a crew to “clandestinely film” (his own words) a mosque in the suburb.

He did this instead of approaching community members or mosque congregants for comment, something that any credible journalist would have done. So when confronted by suspicious mosque goers – culturally some Muslims just don’t like photographs – he decreed that a whole Johannesburg suburb was suddenly hostile to him.

After having introduced his piece to camera by saying how many locals were flocking to join ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Tilsley comically ends up contradicting his original premise when he later quotes the Iraqi ambassador alleging that, at most, 300 South Africans could be in Syria. (For the record, community academics and Muslim clerics reckon the number to be less than 60).

Tilsley then makes a further unsubstantiated, melodramatic claim – that our security agencies have dedicated a special unit to combat South African Muslims being recruited by ISIS. This he does ostensibly to ratchet up his hyperbole to an Islamaphobic alarmism so typical of Fox – but thankfully –  not typical of the South African authorities or the South African media.  

Tilsley soon found himself under fire for his wretched journalism and got a rightful hammering on Twitter. Ironically, at the same time Tilsley was breaking his grand ISIS exclusive on Fox an Independent Group journalist, Yazeed Kamaldien, was in the reef town of Roshnee following up on the real story. Indeed, Tilsley was so bad he even got his town wrong.

Of course, the scenario of a small minority of local Muslims being desirous of joining ISIS is no secret. Even in Cape Town. Nor is it a secret that some have made their way to the war zones and have joined up with either ISIS or the Al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat an-Nusra. And again, it is no secret that eleven (including two children) have returned.

The truth is that it is a complex narrative – far beyond Fox – that chiefly locates itself in the small reef town of Roshnee, a close-knit community where gullible people, influenced by a local “recruiter”, performed what they felt was a holy migration from an un-Islamic abode to an Islamic idyll.  

Their return from war-torn Syria via Turkey is still shrouded in mystery as their lawyer, Yousha Tayob, has fended off all our attempts to interview them and to find out exactly why they absconded from the Dawla, or the house of their dreams.

Tayob, who claims the families were not combatants – which would have made them prosecutable under the Foreign Assistance Act ­– asserts an ideological innocence on their behalf and that they went to perform “aid” or “humanitarian” work.  

However, Tayob is unable to name any aid organisations or how the aid work was done. He doesn’t know whether the group followed aid protocols or not, and can’t say what children were doing in a war zone.

These groups of about 30 people, who reportedly went to Raqqa in Syria, were joined by a Port Elizabeth cleric, Maulana Rashid Moosagee, who was described in the Washington Post as a confused, apocalyptic ideologue by South African academic, Prof Ebrahim Moosa, who knew him as a student in India.

Space precludes a detailed explanation as to how a very small minority of South African Muslims (about 0.0015 per cent of its estimated 4 million) could be wooed by ISIS, but suffice it to say that their initial failing would probably be supreme naivety. ISIS runs a sophisticated social media platform expressing a glitter of optimism, assumption and bonhomie that belies its more sinister realities.

Even Omar Hussain, the former British supermarket security guard who complained that the Syrians had bad table manners and stole his shoes, has a blog that would be believable to the unwary. His give-away line is that Muslims must not perform the Hajj to Mecca until ISIS has conquered Saudi Arabia.

The basic ISIS call to the Muslim world is Hijrah, a migration the Prophet Muhammad did in the 7th century to escape persecution in Mecca.  Based on this, Muslims are legally permitted to migrate from places of hostility to ones of peace.

ISIS – whose declaration of a Caliphate has been deemed totally bogus by Islamic jurists – claim that it is a religious imperative for Muslims to migrate to its territory. Sadly, too many Muslims around the globe have been seduced by this nonsense, and further claptrap about ISIS heralding the Armageddon and the coming of a Mahdi, an end-times imam.

In South Africa, where Muslims are arguably the freest of all minority communities, the idea of the Hijrah – or migration – becomes a parody of itself. For the migration here is in reality a backwards one. In other words, the person migrates from an abode of peace and tranquillity to one of war and social upheaval.

The point is that there is not a responsible Islamic scholar in South Africa, or elsewhere, who would ever condone such insanity. These are the voices that were so noticeably absent in the crude Fox narrative suggesting so blithely that thousands of South Africans were marching with bloodthirsty jihadis in far-flung Syria.