DAWN - Editorial; February 4, 2006

04 Feb 2006


Sense & sensibility

THERE has been an angry reaction in many Muslim countries to the publication of offensive cartoons in a Danish newspaper. The cartoons were first published in September. They were republished in the Norwegian media last month, and some newspapers in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain have also now chosen to carry them. This is supposed to be an assertion of press freedom on the part of these newspapers. Syria and Saudi Arabia have recalled their ambassadors from Denmark in protest, and Libya has closed its embassy in the Danish capital. In the episode, lines have become hopelessly crossed somewhere.

There is the old conundrum about where one person’s freedom ends, and the other’s begins. In the subcontinent, with its multiplicity of religions and beliefs, newspapers (as indeed the broad mass of the people) have learnt to respect religious and ethnic sensibilities and do not confuse freedom of expression with freedom to ridicule a religion or a religious figure. The media here believes that, with its reach, it has a special responsibility in this regard as opposed to political groups or individual writers, etc., who can say or write what they want to. The “Christian West” and “Jewish Israel” are often referred to in derogatory terms in the political discourse in the Muslim world, but none of the revered figures in the two religions are ridiculed or caricatured because they are equally revered by Muslims. The media in Europe has perhaps yet to become accustomed to the large and growing Muslim presence on the continent and finds it even more difficult to be understanding of Muslim beliefs in the current confusion about Islam and terrorism. The right to blasphemy is not one of the rights of the press, however free it may consider itself to be, and the extensive reproduction of blasphemous material cannot be seen as anything but a deliberate affront. It can only be hoped that a greater sense of responsibility will gradually evolve and the religious and cultural sentiments of the many communities in Europe will begin to be better understood.

On the part of Muslim countries, most of them are used to a controlled media and whenever something gets written in the western press about Islam, they think that the government of the country concerned is somehow complicit. This leads to governments getting involved, as the authorities in Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia have done. If there is a moral to be drawn from the present episode, condemnable as it is, it is that we must all respect each other’s religious sensitivities and be more tolerant of each other’s views. Threats of violent action in retaliation for the cartoons’ publication will be self-defeating and will only reinforce the stereotype of Islam as a religion sanctifying violence as portrayed in the western media. Protesting is one thing, declaring death on foreigners, as two Palestinian groups have done, is the wrong way to go about it. It would be far more effective for Muslims living in the countries where the cartoons have been published to boycott the offending newspapers, write to them and make their feelings clear. Meanwhile, the West as a whole should realize that it is episodes like these that strengthen alienation among Muslims and the conviction of a calculated anti-Muslim campaign. And Muslims must understand that their religion is far too strong to be dented by the warped output of some cartoonist’s weird imagination.

Ties with Saudi Arabia

AN identity of views on regional and international issues seems to have marked the outcome of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz’s one-day visit to Pakistan. Among the issues on which the two sides appeared to have a common perception were Kashmir, Palestine, Iraq and terrorism. Even though the joint statement sounds ritualistic, its importance should not be underestimated. To begin with, it is the first time in 30 years that a Saudi monarch has visited Pakistan. It is also King Abdullah’s first visit to this country and the region after becoming king. It came at a time when the Indo-Pakistan normalization process seemed in danger of slowing down if not fizzling out if there was no progress on Kashmir. Against this background, it is satisfying that the joint statement emphasizes the need for a solution to all disputes between Pakistan and India, including Kashmir, through negotiations.

A more significant part of the statement concerns Palestine and Iraq and refers to the “inter-linkage” between the security and stability of the Middle East and South Asia. Situated in South Asia and close to the Gulf, Pakistan has vital stakes in peace in the Middle East. Apart from the cultural ties that bind Pakistan and the Middle Eastern peoples, the Gulf region is the source of oil supplies for Pakistan. Besides, more than a million Pakistani expatriates are working in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. It is thus in the interest of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to maintain peace in the region and ensure the security of the sea lanes through which the bulk of the world’s oil supplies pass. From this point of view, the “inter-linkage” the joint statement speaks of seems to emphasize the need for closer security cooperation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Among the countries that established “a bridge” to help the survivors of last year’s earthquake Saudi Arabia was the first. It is also the biggest donor to the relief fund, having pledged $573 million at the donors’ conference in Islamabad last November. The five agreements signed during King Abdullah’s visit should help reinforce economic ties and lead to greater Saudi investment in Pakistan. Let us hope that under the new monarch, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia will move towards greater cooperation in economic, cultural and security fields.

Afghanistan’s drug menace

IT is expected that Afghanistan’s leaders will speed up development in their country now that they have been promised more than $10.5 billion by international donors who recently met at a conference in London. So far the slow pace of development projects and the consequent lack of employment opportunities in Afghanistan have created a desperate situation for the people, a large number of whom have turned to the illegal drug trade for survival. It is only fitting that much of the aid received by the Afghan government should be directed towards combating the scourge of narcotics and reining in those elements masterminding the production and trafficking of opium that accounts for more than half of the Afghan economy.

Given the nature of Afghanistan’s turbulent, war-scarred history, Kabul’s lack of control over the warlords and drug barons behind this nefarious trade is understandable. But with more generous funding from abroad, it should now be possible to create diverse means of livelihood so that the poverty-stricken Afghan population is not forced to turn to poppy cultivation and opium production for a living. Moreover, there is now a parliament — the first in 30 years — to give shape to the process of framing and implementing the law. This means that it would be possible to hold lawmakers representing the different provinces responsible for the implementation of the rules in their respective areas. While the donor conference has been termed a success, it must be remembered that at a previous conference, governments had pledged more than four billion dollars in aid for Afghanistan. Much of that sum was not delivered, with the result that there has been no visible improvement in the living conditions in Afghanistan. Donors must make good on their promises if they are to save Afghanistan from the perils of poverty and heroin.

Jewish origin: facts and fiction

By Muhammad Ali Siddiqi

PRESIDENT Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran is now the latest of the Muslim bad boys in the West and is being portrayed as a Muslim Nazi talking nonsense. One wishes the Iranian president were a little circumspect, and took a leaf or two from the book of diplomacy refined and honed by men, now long dead, who practised the craft of diplomacy in a far deadlier way than Mr Ahmedinejad can ever hope to, but there is one difference. Unlike Tehran’s former mayor, they kept a stiff upper lip.

Ultimately, the most dangerous people in the world turned out to be not Hitler and Mussolini who spoke their minds and in the process destroyed themselves and their nations; the really lethal ones were those who built world empires and laid seeds of future conflicts by posing as great democrats and do-gooders. They hurt without talking.

A study of the British assessment of the people they ruled over shows that the British view of natives hardly differed from the Nazi view of Jews, Gypsies and “Asiatic barbarians” (i.e. Russians). Lord Cromer, Britain’s proconsul in Egypt (1883-1907), divided humanity into “governing races” and “subject races”, while T. E. Lawrence called Egyptians “worms”. This is hardly different from “vermin”, the Nazi epithet for Jews.

Lord Balfour, whose 1917 declaration handed over Palestinians to Europeans, was intensely anti-Jewish and was so disturbed by the possible mass migration of east European Jews into Britain following pogroms in Russia that as prime minister he had the Aliens Act passed in 1905 to block their migration to Britain. And Mark Sykes (of the Sykes-Picot pact fame) called the Jews “the archetype of cosmopolitan financier, rootless moneygrubber....contemptible”.

Churchill believed that “atheistic Jews” were behind the Russian revolution, and often referred to the Bolsheviks as “bacillus” — a pet Nazi term for Jews. An article “By the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill” in the February 8, 1920, issue of the Illustrated Sunday Herald, named Karl Marx, Bela Kuhn, Rosa Luxembourg and others among Jews who were behind “every subversive movement” in the 19th century. He also accused Trotsky of attempting to set up a world communist empire “under Jewish domination”. Churchill also suggested that the crippled among the British must be put to death.

But — and Mr Ahmedinejad should note this — as prime minister or as foreign secretary Churchill or Balfour or other British government leaders did not go public with their toxicity. All their views about the “contemptible” Jews were confined to private discussions or were made when they were out of office.

Here is the Balfour declaration, a classic example of not speaking one’s mind: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people....” and so it goes. The five-line declaration, in the form of a letter to Lord Rothschild, emphasized that it was “being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities....” as if Jews were already a majority in Palestine. The truth was that the Jews were less than 10 per cent of Palestine’s population in 1917, and here it was being “clearly understood” that the interests of the non-Jewish communities would not be hurt.

Everybody knows that the extermination of the Palestinian people is Israel’s official policy. But every Israeli leader holding a public office has brains enough to realize that he should keep his aim and his inner most thought to himself. Short of officially declaring genocide to be state policy, Israeli leaders in office and outside have used every imaginable epithet for Palestinians — thieves, liars, grasshoppers, cockroaches, snakes. But never have they spoken of exterminating the Palestinian people. The have not usurped Jerusalem; they said they have “restored the cultural unity of Jerusalem”, and such other nonsense.

Did Mr Ahmedinejad really talk nonsense? Does his view that Israel should be moved to Europe go against historical truths? The word ‘return’ presumes that someone has gone back — or wants to go back — to a place where he had been once. People most keen to “return” to Palestine were Ashkenazi Jews, even though history does not suggest that the ancestors of today’s Ashkenazis ever lived in Palestine.

The roots of Ashkenazim are to be found in the land between the northern shores of the Caspian and Black seas on the one side and what today can be called Ukraine and southern stretches of western Kazakhstan on the other side. Between seventh and 11th century a powerful Turkish kingdom existed there and its populace practised shamanism. It had cultural and trade relations with the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, and the latter’s successors, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. It also fought wars with these kingdoms, its frontiers fluctuating, until it was finally pushed out of southern Caucasus and based itself further north in the lower Volga basin, its capital being Atil.

Fed up with constant pressures from the Christian (Byzantine) and Muslim (Abbasid) empires, the Khazars seemed to have become more receptive to what visiting Jewish rabbis and merchants from these two empires had to say. In 740 AC, the Khaqan — the Khazar ruler — and the elite adopted the Jewish faith, and Judaism became the Khazar state’s official religion. Even though Khazars had people of other faiths even after Judaism became the state religion, a substantial number of common Khazars also became Jews.

For reasons into which we need not go, the Khazar state disappeared in the 11th century, the primary reason being wars from the north. Later Mongol and Turco-Mongol armies under Genghiz Khan and Tamerlane ravaged this area. The area eventually came under the Russian sway. Jewish communities then spread throughout Russia, Poland and Lithuania. They were subjected to ruthless persecution by their Christian rulers. Pogrom is a Russian word and means state-sponsored riots — of the kind we saw in India’s Gujarat state in 2002.

The persecution of Russian Jews was indescribable. Pregnant women had their bellies ripped open, kittens placed inside and skin sewn up again. No wonder the Zionist movement’s leading proponents and personalities came from Russia and eastern European countries — like Theodore Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, born in Budapest, Hungary, Ben-Gurion (Polansk, Poland), Golda Meir (Kiev, Ukraine), Menachem Begin (Brest-Litvosk, Russia), Yitzhak Shamir (Ruzinov, Poland), Ze’ev Jabotinski “the revisionist” (Odessa, Russia), Chaim Weizmann, who took up the Zionist leadership after Herzl’s death and was Israel’s first president (Motol, Poland), and many others.

The greatest proponent of the Khazar theory was Arthur Koestler, the communist renegade. In his books and the novel The Thirteenth Tribe, Koestler, who became an ardent Zionist, asserted that Ashkenazis were the descendents of the Turkish Khazar tribe whose elite had adopted the Jewish faith.

The theory was highly embarrassing for the Zionist movement, for the very basis of Israel was the assertion that the Jews had a right to “return” to Palestine. Now Zionist scientists are carrying out DNA tests on Ashkenazi Jews to prove that they have Middle Eastern blood.

Mr Ahmedinejad would better serve the Palestinian cause and the cause of Iran — which must come first — if he kept quiet. He seems to have forgotten the first principle of diplomacy, and poker — keep your cards close to your chest.