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Pushing back against authoritarianism

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By William Milam

I have been, for several months, focusing my attention on the coming election in Bangladesh. The coming election in that country seems to me to encapsulate the struggle of liberal democratic sectors of many countries against authoritarian, or incipient authoritarian, governments. All the familiar elements are present: an authoritarian one-party government with complete control of the electoral process; a willingness of this government to bend the norms and rules of that process to guarantee its return to office; an opposition that has suffered the ravages and humiliations of being out of power and a serious campaign of human rights abuse to weaken it to the point of unviability as a serious political contender; and a government program of suffocation of any voices in the media or society in general that question the government’s actions in suppressing the opposition.

In many of these countries, the opposition is too fragmented, or too decimated by the suppression, or both, to fight back effectively. This seemed to be the case in Bangladesh until there appeared a leader, or leaders, from the middle of the political spectrum who have the gravitas with the society to pull together the various parts of the middle—left, center, right leaning parties—into a viable coalition of the center to challenge the government. They have been joined in Bangladesh by the remnants of what was the other major party, made virtually leaderless by government repression.

Nonetheless, the hope this challenge brings is leavened by the knowledge that the government has all the tools to rig the election in its favour and none of the institutional scruples necessary to constrain its actions to preserve itself at all cost. News from Dhaka makes clear, for example, that the chairman of the election commission has sided with the government on every procedural issue. In addition to election procedures, there is the technical harassment, such as government-ordered constantly interrupted communications near the opposition headquarters. Worse, there is the government-inspired physical and legal harassment. The latter involves filing spurious cases by the hundreds against opposition activists in completely politicized courts. The former is just plain killing or disappearing (which usually amounts to the same thing) many such activists.

I am thrilled by the fact that, despite its current ambiguity on human rights and democracy, the US government is taking a strong line to try to persuade the Government of Bangladesh to allow a free and fair election. Other Western voices seem relatively muted, and some are actually doing harm in their eagerness to seem neutral. For example, the EU recently announced it would not send observers, and a British MP leading an EU Parliamentary Delegation said to the press he was personally confidant of a free and fair election after talking to political leaders of Bangladesh. This personal opinion may, or may not, have reflected the EU position, but it will certainly be taken as the EU position.

The EU statement blames both sides rather than making clear that the government, which is in full control of the mechanisms to set those conditions, is the recalcitrant party. Clearly, this is not an incentive for the government to halt its serious rigging. While the center coalition developed quickly and caught many off guard, too late for most Western countries or institutions to send observers, in setting the election so close to Christmas, the Government surely wanted to minimize observers from the West.

The big election news this month was the US election on November 6, and readers might wonder why I have not yet crowed over the thumping Trump took. After all, the election was held over three weeks ago. The answer is that the results are generally, but not totally, good news and have some troubling implications that take time to sort out. Moreover, it seems that American midterm elections, i.e. those that are non-Presidential, are becoming slower and slower in providing definitive results. I wrote my last piece on November 12, six days after the election, yet at that time I still did not know how high the Democratic (blue) tide would rise. The reason is that voting methods are shifting, and more and more Americans are voting by mail or absentee ballot. These take longer to count. Although turnout was very high, fewer and fewer Americans voters are voting in person on election day.

Before the election, there was talk of a “blue wave,” meaning that the Democrats (blue) would take many seats mainly, if not only, in the House of Representatives from Republican (red) incumbents, more than enough to win the House back. At midnight on election day, that blue wave looked more like a blue trickle. Most of the races were too close to call. As the counting proceeded over the hours, then days, the blue trickle began to look more like a blue tide than a blue wave, slowly rising to the present count of Democrats taking 39 seats from the Republicans. Votes were still being counted two weeks later in some states. At this late date, three weeks after the election, one congressional race in California is still undetermined. Many of the “flipped” seats were in Congressional districts that had been historically Republican, and the elections were so close as to require recounts. For example, in Orange county, which is has been strongly Republican for as long as I can remember (it was thought of as the birthplace of Reagan Republicanism) all of its seven Congressional seats held by Republicans until November 6 will be now held by Democrats.

It was, in fact, a rout of the Republicans in the suburbs of most of the large metropolitan areas of the country, and thus in the House of Representatives. In most of those suburbs, President Trump had run strongly in 2016, though his margins of victory, if he had won the district (and he did not win all of them in any case) was usually not great. The shift away from Trump seems to have been suburban white women, but the other large addition to the Democratic vote count was a much larger turnout among groups that are generally opposed to Trump anyway but were energized for this election. The main issue for most of the voters was Trump himself—his approval rating keeps sinking among millennial, minorities, and women.

The Senate, however, is a different story—and a very different context—which in some part emphasizes the contradictions in what we call the American system of democracy. Just plain bad luck put the Democrats in a difficult situation because Senators have six-year terms and thus only a third (in theory) come up for re-election every two years. This year, most of the senate seats that came up were in rural states that Trump had won by large margins in 2016; in a sense the election of 2018 for the Senate took place in rural America, while that for the House took place in suburban America.

The glaring divisions in the US were, thus, only too prominent in this election. The good news (and it is very good news) is that a Democratic House will be a very necessary check on Trump. One can expect many clashes. One can hope that the Democrats use their majority strategically, to lay the groundwork for a victory in the 2020 Presidential election.

With the judiciary now stuffed with conservative judges, it will not be a check on Trump or on the imposition of a conservative, perhaps even nativist, agenda by a conservative minority on an increasingly liberal and diverse majority, which ultimately would result in serious social and political turmoil. The worrisome divisions in American politics that our convoluted and out-of-date Constitution are causing — the rural/urban, young/old, college educated/non-college educated splits — are shown in bold relief in this election. In the national figures for the Senate election, for example, the Democrats lost two seats while getting over 50 million (58 percent) of the votes, and the Republicans gained two seats while getting just over 34 million (40 percent) of the vote. In contrast, in the house election the Democrats gained 39 seats with 59 million (53 percent) votes, and the Republicans lost 39 seats with 50 million (45 percent) votes. If that isn’t a recipe for future trouble, I don’t know what is.


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Opinion

Ilhan, Rashida and Rahul

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By Jawed Naqvi

THE young politician shows up at Mount Kailash in Tibet, and proclaims his youthful Hindu-ness in lighter sportswear than the freezing weather warrants. He then resumes his frenzied temple-hopping, balancing it with an occasional visit to a Muslim shrine. This is yet another election season in India.

Rahul Gandhi is again competing with the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party on its turf. He claims to be the better Hindu of the two. While the young Indian leader was performing the religious trapeze to woo India’s strangely insecure majority, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women to be elected to the US House of Representatives. One unapologetically proclaims justice for Palestine as a key pursuit, and the other, a hijab-clad Somalian-American, works her heart out to provide more accessible education to less-privileged children across ethnic barriers.

When everybody had declared America to be a right-wing haven, a spitting image of Modi’s India, the country pulled a rabbit out of its hat and gave President Trump a few useful thoughts to ruminate on. Similar examples abound from secular democracies elsewhere, not excluding the fact of a Muslim home secretary in the UK. If Trump stacked his politics with Islamophobia and racial innuendo, the American people, led by the white community, sent the maximum number of coloured women to their parliament in the November mid-term elections, including Omar and Tlaib. This is perhaps how tables are turned on errant adversaries in a democracy, by setting one’s own loftier agenda, and not by yielding to the follies of the opponent.

Gandhi’s display of his religion and caste mocks Indians who were looking for their own Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the pack. Even a Hindu variant of Kemal Ataturk — and such men and women do exist — could help rescue India from the reigning cult of religious charlatans. By allowing his party to hug symbols of a regressive appeal, Gandhi unwittingly smudged the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru and those who hitched their hopes to his liberal ideals. To be sure, the young leader still would make for a more presentable representative of what remains of a secular India.

Rahul Gandhi’s display of his religion and caste mocks Indians who were looking for their own Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the pack.

But India is not a baby pool of low-bar contests. Also, is Gandhi going to become an avid drinker of cow urine to garner votes, now that his party has promised to manufacture refined gau mutra as a commercial proposition? Is this what Indira Gandhi had in mind when she underscored secularism and socialism as the guiding principles of the constitution? Or would sipping the hallowed elixir embellish the scientific temper that Nehru had envisioned for the country? One was hoping Gandhi would take the cue from democracies elsewhere and weave a tapestry of pluralism and reason into the grand alliance he is cobbling together for general elections next year.

Having said that, India’s Muslims as none other are perennially counselled by their sympathisers to keep a low profile against the Hindutva onslaught and to let friendly folk do the battle on their behalf. The argument goes that Muslims give easy traction to Hindutva purposes, and any retaliation to a provocation, of which there’s no dearth today, would add grist to the reactionary mill. Had the assertion produced a worthy result, there would be reason to believe in the lore. The fear of Muslims being the red rag to the Hindutva bull should not be the ruse for their self-proclaimed supporters to feel hassled by their association with the community. A Muslim MP from Bihar and two legislators from Uttar Pradesh won important by-polls recently to defy the red-rag theory.

This is not a case for a mandatory quota for Muslims in the coming elections, far from it. The argument put simply is that the minority communities, particularly their women, often suffer in the proclaimed quest for ethnic rectitude. I would argue that Muslims generally form a perfect ballast and they improve the stability of any political party in India. In fact, their inclusion is useful not only to win elections but also to keep the promise of democracy alive with greater zeal. Saving the constitution is the stated objective of most political parties, but for India’s minorities, it is their lifeline, and they must secure it at all costs.

Put bluntly, will the parties they support stand with them when their constitutional guarantees are threatened? Let’s take the Ayodhya dispute currently being studied by the apex court. Would the Congress and its allies have the moral courage to stand by a court verdict should it favour the Muslim case? Would they stand up to the Hindutva challenge then, or should the Muslims start praying for an adverse verdict against their own petition?

Happily, this is not the dilemma for the two women who have made it to the Congress in the United States. Few are as outspoken as they are about Trump’s follies among their other urgent concerns. True, for that and more, they are abused and threatened on the net. They are trolled daily. But they have the unqualified support of the people and the party behind them to see to it that their worldview is not stifled. One thing worse than the stifling of the minorities in a democracy is to make them parrot the majoritarian point of view. Look at what happened in Pakistan. A Hindu man was elected for the first time from a general constituency to the National Assembly. That should be celebrated. But what was his battle cry? He wooed support by prescribing the death penalty for blasphemers. Likewise, in India. The Muslim author of a most adulatory book on Nehru joined the BJP. And now he seems sanguine at the daily abuses heaped on his erstwhile hero by the party’s tallest leaders. That’s not a route for Rahul Gandhi or Indian Muslims to pursue.

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Why are the ‘yellow vests’ protesting in France?

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By Rokhaya Diallo

For the past three weeks, France has been experiencing one of the most significant social mobilisations in its recent history, which laid bare the country’s social ills, anti-elite sentiment, growing inequalities and thirst for social justice.

It all started on November 17 when tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest against rising fuel prices.

The protesters, dubbed “Les gilets jaunes” (the yellow vests) after the high-visibility jackets they adopted as a symbol of their complaint, blocked roundabouts, burned effigies and clashed with the police. They were angry about the almost 20 percent increase in the price of diesel since the start of the year, as well as the planned fuel tax hike President Emmanuel Macron had recently announced.

While Macron said the tax was necessary to “protect the environment” and “combat climate change”, protesters claimed the decision was yet another sign that the “arrogant” and “privileged” president is out of touch with regular folk struggling to make ends meet.

The intensity of the protests quickly forced the government to make a U-turn and first suspend and later permanently shelve its plans for fuel tax increases. However, the protest movement was not only about fuel prices. It encompassed wider anger and frustration against the political establishment in general and President Macron in particular. As a result, the government’s decision to abandon fuel tax hikes failed to calm tensions.

The “yellow vests” want further concessions from the government. Their demands include a redistribution of wealth as well as the increase of salaries, pensions, social security payments and the minimum wage. Some say they will not settle for anything less than the president’s resignation.

So how did day-to-day frustrations about fuel prices and “green taxes” transform into a nation-wide protest movement attracting hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks?

It all comes down to Macron’s apparent failure to connect with the people, understand their concerns and steer France away from destructive neoliberal policies.

40-year-old Macron was elected last year on pledges to change the face of French politics, create more jobs and improve lives.

On the eve of the 2017 presidential election, French voters were tired of career politicians. They wanted a different kind of leader, someone who can understand their long-rooted social and economic concerns and deliver real, practical solutions.

For the past four decades, French people have been worried about the erosion of social protections in their country. Since Francois Mitterrand’s socialist government controversially decided to impose austerity policies in 1983, successive governments have taken slow but consistent steps to dismantle the French welfare state.

All this gradually accentuated the economic concerns of the French middle and working classes and led them to be more and more suspicious of all mainstream politicians on the right and the left. They came to believe that the political elite protects the interests of the wealthy and does not care about the wellbeing of ordinary citizens.

Successfully diagnosing the public’s frustration with the political class, Macron worked hard to differentiate himself from the establishment in Paris and act as the representative of a “new world order” throughout his election campaign.

He had the youth, the energy, the positive message. He was the leader of a brand-new political party, aligned neither with the right nor the left. He appeared to be carrying no political baggage. Many viewed him as a possible saviour and did not hesitate to give him their vote.

Moreover, he was running against National Front leader Marine Le Pen. This also made him look like a “progressive saviour”. A significant portion of the French electorate was ready to vote for any moderate candidate who could stop the far right from taking power. So, they voted for Macron, even though many of them did not support his agenda completely or have faith in his ability to respond to their concerns.

As a result, Macron was elected by a landslide. However, it didn’t take long for his supporters to realise that his “reformist”, “new world” image was nothing more than an illusion.

Macron’s failure to bring about change should not have surprised anyone. Even though he seemed “young and new”, he was part of the establishment.

He had served as the minister of the economy, industry and digital affairs from 2014 to 2016 under Francois Hollande – he was in charge of implementing the former president’s infamous Labour Law reform, which caused widespread protests across the country. Before that he was a Rothschild investment banker.

Once elected, Macron showed his true colours almost immediately. He decided to amend the wealth tax – known in France as “ISF” – by narrowing it to a tax on real estate assets, rather than covering all worldwide assets over the value of 1.3m euros. This led to him being swiftly labelled the “president of the rich”.

On top of making controversial policy decisions that favoured powerful corporations and rich individuals, Macron also repeatedly demonstrated his unfamiliarity with – and at times disdain for – ordinary people struggling to survive in the country’s increasingly harsh economic environment.

In 2016 while he was the minister of economy, for example, Macron was confronted by angry trade unionists and was recorded telling one young man: “You don’t scare me with your T-shirt. The best way of paying for a suit is to work.”

In a July 2017 speech Macron said train stations were wonderful places, for there you can cross paths with both “people who succeed” (people like him) and “people who are nothing” (presumably ordinary French citizens like the rest of us).

In October of the same year he was filmed accusing disgruntled workers of preferring to stir up “chaos” rather than find jobs. “Instead of kicking up bloody chaos, some of them would be better off going to see if they can get a job over there,” he said, alluding to an aluminium factory in Ussel, a region in which employers were struggling to hire new workers.

More recently, in September this year, Macron told an unemployed man he could easily find work if only “he crossed the street”. “Everywhere I go people say to me that they are looking for staff,” the president said.

This lack of empathy coupled with business-friendly policies helped shape the French public’s perception of Macron as an arrogant, privileged politician who is a friend of the rich and the powerful.

The fuel tax that he tried to impose on people that are already feeling their economic concerns are being ignored was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This is why the yellow vest movement is not only about fuel prices but about social justice. There is a profound discontent among ordinary people in France who see themselves as the losers in a world dominated by international elites who don’t seem to care or understand what they are going through. Macron is pursuing the exact same neoliberal agenda his predecessors pursued in the 1980’s. And just like the policies of his predecessors, his policies are hurting the poorest and helping the rich get even richer.

The protests are not rejecting climate change action

The yellow vest movement should not be seen as the public’s rejection of the green transition. The French state indeed has a responsibility to take action to combat climate change and protect the environment. But powerful companies that are primarily responsible for the pollution, and not regular citizens, should bear the brunt of this necessary revolution.

The yellow vest movement is, of course, not perfect. Some protesters were responsible for outrageous racial and homophobic attacks. Some also damaged national monuments and were violent towards police officers.

While we should not turn a blind eye to any of this, we should remember that the yellow vests movement is a reflection of the ongoing tensions in France. Almost 11 million people voted for the far right only a year ago in this country. There are some extremist elements in the French society and they were inevitably some among the protesters.

But we should not dismiss the entire movement as “extremist” because of this. The yellow vests are the French people who we never see on TV. Their despair can at times appear offensive because anger is neither polite nor sophisticated. It is disorganised, shocking and comes with emotion, which can translate into violence. The point is not to defend any of the violence that has tragically occurred, but to remember that the unrest France is currently facing came in response to other forms of violence, much more insidious and harmful: social exclusion and injustice.

Unemployment, discrimination and poverty are at the root of the daily humiliation French people feel which has now transformed into a general despondency. The French political elites will find it hard to pacify this public anger unless they commit to introducing radical changes to the way this country is governed.

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The Khashoggi skeletons in America’s closet

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By Azeezah Kanji

Donald Trump’s commitment to “remain[ing] a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia,” despite the regime’s gruesome torture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, is clearly symptomatic of the malignantly self-serving nature of US foreign policy, which has long propped up dictatorships and enabled atrocities around the world for the sake of profit and power.

However, many of Trump’s most vocal critics on the Saudi file show signs of an equally dangerous pathological condition: a profound historical amnesia that permits some of the most prominent proponents of the US’ own torturous and murderous policies to now parade as champions of human rights, without any apparent sense of irony.

Obama-era CIA Director John Brennan, for instance, has insisted that “the US should never turn a blind eye to this sort of inhumanity [referring to the murder of Khashoggi] … because this is a nation that remains faithful to its values” – a curiously self-righteous stance for a man who not only repeatedly turned a blind eye to the inhumanity of past and present CIA practices such as extraordinary rendition, torture, and drone assassination, but actively defended and (in the case of drone use) expanded them.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decried the brutal murder of Khashoggi as “completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world”. Yet he praised another perpetrator of abhorrent deeds, CIA “black site” torture prison manager Gina Haspel, as an “excellent choice” for Director of the CIA.

Republican senator and drone war enthusiast Lindsey Graham called Saudi’s extrajudicial killing of Khashoggi a “barbaric act which defied all civilized norms” – even while maintaining that casualties of US’ own international norm-defying extrajudicial killing programme “got what they deserved.”

The idea that the US is in a position to hold anyone to account for “barbaric acts” of extraterritorial violence defies reality. Far from serving as a model to be emulated, the American precedent exemplifies the dangers of lethal state power wielded without adequate restraint.

“If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos,” UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston presciently warned in 2010.

Among the global targets of the US’s lethal drone programme – which have included first responders at missile strike sites, mourners at funerals, and families celebrating weddings – are, allegedly, at least two media workers.

In 2017, Al Jazeera’s former Islamabad bureau chief Ahmad Zaidan and American media activist Bilal Abdul Kareem filed a lawsuit against the US government, claiming they had been placed on the government’s “disposition matrix” – although the absolute secrecy surrounding who is on the extrajudicial kill list, and why, makes it impossible to know for sure. A US court shot down Zaidan’s case but allowed Abdul Kareem’s to proceed, rendering it the first legal challenge to the drone programme to make it past the preliminary stage.

While Trump may have been the first US president to openly and explicitly declare the media “the enemy of the people,” the treatment of journalists as a hostile force has been a consistent feature of the US’s so-called “war on terror”.

The Pentagon’s 2015 Law of War Manual stated that journalists may in some instances be considered “unprivileged belligerents” (enemy fighters without the protections and privileges accorded to lawful combatants), since “reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying” – an apparent licence to target journalists that was only revised because of a sustained outcry from media organisations.

The illegal US-led war of aggression on Iraq has been one of the deadliest wars for journalists in modern history. In its first year, it “inflict[ed] a proportionally higher number of casualties on journalists than on members of the coalition’s armed forces” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

At least 16 journalists and six media workers were killed directly by US fire, including several “at checkpoints or near US bases, in most cases without [the US military] accepting responsibility,” as the Guardian reported. “Often they promised to hold investigations but never released the findings.”

In addition to dealing out death to journalists with impunity, US powers also made a habit of arresting and jailing them for long periods of time without charge, including journalists working for Reuters, CBS News, and the Associated Press.

“By early January 2006, Camp Bucca, an American detention centre in southern Iraq, had become the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East,” observed Reporters Without Borders. Journalists were also imprisoned in the detention and torture camps at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Alhaj was held in Guantanamo for more than six years; tellingly, 125 of the 130 interrogations he was put through had nothing to do with the activities of any terror organisation but with the operations of Al Jazeera.

While US commentators have rightly called out the farcical nature of Saudi Arabia’s investigation into the death of Khashoggi, the pretence that the US government has provided anything resembling accountability for its own crimes against journalists and other civilians is equally laughable. None of the senior officials implicated in the Iraq torture scandal, for instance, have ever been prosecuted, and authorities ignored reports of abuse from human rights organisations for six months before they were publicly exposed – a fact cited by Saudi’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in an attempt to rationalise his own country’s delayed response to Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Perversely, punishment has primarily been reserved for those who have dared to call attention to the assault on journalists, rather than those responsible for the assault itself. Chelsea Manning was incarcerated for seven years in a military prison under conditions the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded violated international law, for leaking evidence of US military atrocities including video footage showing US soldiers slaughtering two Reuters journalists and several other Iraqi civilians. In 2005, CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan was forced to resign because he suggested on a panel discussion that coalition troops were targeting journalists in Iraq.

The popular conceit that American “values” are inherently antithetical to the torture and killing of journalists renders invisible the victims of US torture and killing policies. Propagating such myths in the name of advocating for justice for Jamal Khashoggi only serves to bury the Khashoggi-like skeletons in America’s closet further out of sight.

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