Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The changing face of Africa

Recently I went to Africa for a few weeks to meet with university officials and church leaders in a West African country. That was the reason why my blog has not appeared for a while. This week I am finally able to return to it and to prepare a new post. I hope to be able to do this regularly again. I hope that you will enjoy these posts. Please indicate this by liking this blog. I need feedback.  I find it helpful and encouraging. 

When one trudges through sandy African streets, it seems as if the continent never changes. Everything seems to remain the same year after year. But that is not true as I discovered on a whirlwind trip to Africa. I have been going to Africa for more than a decade and have taught in several countries. Africa is changing quickly, even if the changes are not always immediately apparent.

In the last decade, Africa has experienced enormous growth. Only two years ago, it was the fastest-growing continent in the world at 5.6% a year, Growth has been present throughout the continent, with over one-third of Sub-Saharan African countries posting 6% or higher growth rates, while another 40% is growing at between 4% to 6% per year.

The growth is unequally distributed in Africa

Unfortunately, this economic growth is unequally distributed not only among the 54 countries that comprise this huge continent but also within each country. There are still too many people who are living in dire poverty. The only reason they can survive is because of communities where they share with each other.

Even so, there is a growing, although still very small, middle-class. Most African cities have areas where these increasingly well-to-do people reside. Their homes are surrounded by walls, and they often have guards. They ride around in relatively new cars, and may even have with drivers.

Then there are the super-rich whose mansions are miniature fortresses. They own a multiplicity of the latest luxury vehicles. They may also have several wives. It is not considered wise or healthy, however, to ask how they acquired their wealth. Millionaires constitute only 1% of Africa''s 1.1 billion people; the super-rich are only a small fraction of that, but they run most of the continent's countries.

Even after the commodities prices plummeted in 2014, Africa fared remarkably well. Nigeria's economy had been expected to grow by 14%, but the IMF reduced its forecast to 10%. That is still amazing growth.

Africa is no longer as dependent as before on commodities. Manufacturing output has increased while services are growing even faster. Tourism is booming in many countries, with the exception of those West-African countries, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, that were directly involved with the Ebola crisis, But some neighboring countries have also seen tourism deccrease because of the Ebola scare, as I witnessed first hand on my recent visit.

Many African countries have witnessed a decline in their currencies in relation to the American dollar, but other countries in the world have experienced this as well. While such a decline makes imports more expensive, exports have become cheaper in dollar terms which benefits manufacturing.

Fiscal policies have also improved in much of Africa. Now, increasingly, African nations are saving money during good times so that they can spend it during more difficult times.  This is a big change from their behavior in their past.

Governments have also made it easier for investors.The mountains of red-tape inmost  Africa countries has been frightening. Corruption is fostered when red-tape flourishes; thus a reduction in red-tape will help to reduce corruption. There are many other factors, of course, that also influence corruption. These social factors will take longer to eradicate or at least to reduce.

Another feature of the changing face of Africa has been the growth of Christianity. This has been phenomenal. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa’s Christian population rose from 9% to 63% in the century between 1910-2010.

Together with the steady decline of Christianity in Europe and North America, the center of gravity of this faith has moved much further to the south. If decades ago the center could be found on the latitude of Madrid, today it is found near that of Timbuktu.

Christianity is now so large and powerful in Africa that it no longer accepts the charge that it is a Western religion that has been transplanted to Africa. African Christian scholars have assembled evidence to show that Christianity even reached Sub-Saharan Africa during the first centuries of the Christian era.

These scholars also dispute the Muslim claim of being original to Africa by pointing out that Islam arrived in Africa later than Christianity, and that Christianity has been more thoroughly indigenized that Islam. The latter still uses the Qur'an in its original Arabic (in fact, this is the only authoritative version), while the Bible has been translated in whole or in part into many of Africa's numerous languages.

Although there is supposedly religious conflict in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has created a lot of unrest through its massive killings, the capture of many women and children, and the displacement of more than a million people from north-eastern Nigeria, this conflict has ethnic roots. It is concentrated among the Kanuri people, even though the language that it uses is Hausa.

Today it has become a pan-Islamist movement that among other things wants to wants to create a caliphate, similar to that of ISIS, with which it is affiliated, in that part of Nigeria that it now controls. It would also like to spread to the neighboring countries of Niger and Cameroun, but they have already sent troops to fight Boko Haram. South African mercenaries have been enlisted as well by the Nigerian government in this fight.

In spite of the role of Islam, Boko Haram has not attracted the jihadists that are flocking to ISIS. Boko Haram thus does not pose the threat that ISIS does, except in a small part of Nigeria. This group is not the portent of a major religious conflict throughout Africa.

On the contrary, many African leaders are doing their best to reduce religious conflict. Even some Muslim-majority countries have made the promotion of peace betrween Christians and Muslims a national policy. This is a development that the people in the West should encourage. Both religions at their roots are interested in peace.

This is one of the reasons why my wife and I went to Africa. For many years, we have tried to start a program in Christian religious studies at a university in a Muslim-majority country. Such a program would contribute to better understanding and to peace relations. There are still some barriers that remain, but we continue to pray that the program will actually start in September.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Nigeria's amazing election

Nigeria is an amazing country, not only because it has the largest population and economy in Africa but also because the latest presidential election proves that Nigeria is really a democracy. It has been said that as Nigeria goes, so goes the rest of Africa. If so, this election is a harbinger of good for the whole continent.

What made this election so amazing is that for the first time since Nigeria gained independence in 1960 there was a transition from one civilian administration to another one. Before the current regime Nigeria had experienced a succession of military rulers. In this election, however, an incumbent president was voted out of office. That has never happened before.

Moreover, President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat immediately and peacefully. He phoned and congratulated his chief opponent, General Muhammadu Buhari and promised his help with the transition.

Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari

Indeed, this time there was relatively little violence as compared to many previous elections. Previously there were probably ten times or more the number of deaths than in this one. Nigerians take elections seriously. Violence has characterized nearly all Nigerian elections since independence, but this time it was minimal,

Immediately after 1960 there were no elections, but only a succession of military rulers. There was an election in 1965, but that led the following year to a serious of military coups and a civil war (1967-1970).

Then another series of military juntas followed for almost two decades, interrupted only by a brief return to democracy in 1979, when Olusegun Obasanjo, a military president, transferred power to the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari.

In 1999, Obasanjo, a Christian, was elected as civilian president. He served for eight years when the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) transferred power to a Muslim, Umaru Yar'Adua, in the election of 2007.The PDP has a rule that the presidency should rotate between Christians and Muslims.

Yar'Adua died in 2010, He was succeeded by Jonathan, who served the balance of Yar'Asua's term and was elected in 2011 with a substantial majority. Internation observers declared this election as relatively fair, with less violence and voter fraud than compared to earlier elections.

That election and the most recent one speak volumes about Jonathan's integrity. Unfortunately, he did little to solve the problems of Boko Haram and corruption. He had promised to deal with corruption, but he was unable to address this issue effectively because it is endemic in Nigerian politics.

Muhammadu Buhari, the winning candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), will find it equally difficult to deal with corruption, since it is widespread in his party as well. He has a lot to prove, since the APC promised major changes.

Despite his military background and the authoritarian manner in which he ruled Nigeria during his first term in office, few people today question his commitment to democracy.

He will also have to deal with Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency in the north-east that has already cost 15,000 lives and displaced more than a million people. "We will end Boko Haram," his party’s posters promised. In this election  people clearly put their faith in him. Buhari's fierce denunciation of corruption and his frugal lifestyle appeal to the poor, who make up the majority of Nigerians.

Buhari will be hampered by an economy that relies massively on oil for government revenue and foreign exchange. The federal coffers have emptied as the price of oil has tumbled. The economy is in serious trouble, with the poor suffering the most because of their large numbers.

As a Muslim, he will also find it difficult to deal with the insurgency in the delta, where Goodluck hails from and where he received sixeable support again thi this election. A peace pact was made in 2009, but some of the insurgents promised to fight again if Buhari won.

There were a few major glitches during the election with the new voter cards and biometric readers. In site of this, people gladly lined up for hours to cast their votes. In fact, they had to stand in line twice, once to certify that they were they were the same people whose names appeared on the voter cards, and a second time to cast their actual vote. In spite of this cumbersome procedure, people turned out in droves to vote. This procedure helped to prevent the massive ballot-box stuffing that characterized earlier elections in which the results were preordained. That clearly did not happen this time.

Nigerians, it appears from an analysis of the votes cast in each region, did not vote strictly on ethnic and religious grounds. This too is an important harbinger of good for all of Africa. If Nigeria can hold a largely fair and honest election, then other African countries can do the same. And they can also have a peaceful transition, as will probably shortly happen in Nigeria.

One Nigerian is reputed to have said after the election resuts were proclaimed, "We have won the most free and fair election ever to take place in Nigeria. This is a new Nigeria."  

I hope that this Nigerian is right: that a new Nigeria is here. Politically, Nigeria may have turned the corner and become the true, vibrant democracy that it always wanted to be. History reveals many examples where it has taken missteps and thus failed, but the recent election demonstrates that it is succeeding. That from now on Nigeria may be able to transfer presidential power peacefully.

Nigeria will then be a sterling example to all of Africa that democracy does work and that election violence may be a thing of the past.

My prayer is that it may continue on this new path.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Reflections on Easter 2015

Easter, which celebrates Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead, is Christianity's most important holiday. Easter is a time for reflections: on the past, the present, and the future. I did that again this year, after an unusual (at least for me) and an unholy (for many) Holy Week.

The past for me was remembering many deaths during the past year. I lost several friends and acquaintances, as you no doubt did too. I also lost my mother, who died the week after Easter last year.

Easter Sunday a year ago I had to go to Ottawa urgently since my mother was not expected to live much longer. As it happened, she hung on for another week. She had prayed for a long time that God would end her suffering and take her home. The following Sunday, God did. What was a joy for her left her six children, their spouses, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, with a mixture of joy and sorrow: happiness for her, but sorrow for themselves.

The memory of Easter sustained and comforted my family at the time: Christ has risen! That is the guarantee of our resurrection and, indeed, the resurrection of the entire creation. The past already anticipates the future.

Christ is victorious; he has won the victory and release creation from the bondage imposed by sin. But death, as Paul reminds us, is the final enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26). One day -- very soon, we hope -- death will be no more. Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Unfortunately, death is still here, as I was reminded again a few days ago by the news of the death of yet another friend. The present impinges itself harshly and cruelly every day when we hear about death and suffering or experience it personally.

Our world is an unholy one. We only has to open our newspapers to discover that. The past week they were filled with many horror stories.

A truly tragic story, coming only days before Easter, was the murder in cold blood of 147 Christian students and guards at Garissa University in Kenya by al-Shabaab. On Easter Sunday relatives of the murdered students had to identify the dead. Some way to spend Easter!

The week before the copilot of a plane committed suicide and took all the passengers and crew with him to their untimely deaths in the French Alps. This seems to have been a premeditated act by a mentally-ill man. What does Easter mean to those who lost loved ones that day?

All of us can add to this list of tragedies. All of us have witnessed many tragedies of a personal nature as well as experienced the numerous aches and pains that our mortal flesh is heir to. In fact, the whole creation is groaning in anticipation for its renewal (Rom. 8:22).

Then pain and tears will be no more: "[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:4, NIV).

This year Holy Week was very different from previous years for me. Usually I attend as many church services as I can during that week, but not this time. A sore back derailed my plans so much that I was only able to worship in church on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Even though the pain has lessened appreciatively, even now I still experience some pain. Next week I hope to leave for Africa for a few weeks to help orient a colleague at a university there. Thus I want to be in good enough shape to do that.

I will not be blogging during those two weeks, but hope to do so again after my return to Canada.

Thus the present is a constant reminder that the past is still with us, and the future remains a promise and not yet a full reality. The gospel reading for Easter Sunday spoke forcefully to me, and thus I want to share it with you now:

Mark 16:1-8 (NIV) When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Christ has risen! He is not here! In other words, he is no longer dead, but he is very much alive. The short ending of this gospel leaves the disciples afraid to tell anyone the good news, but soon Christ commanded them to tell the whole world. And the rest, as they say, is history.

That is why I am repeating it now. This was the good news I needed to hear again. All of us, whether believers or not, need hear it because the whole creation is involved.

Christ's resurrection provides comfort to all those who have lost loved ones. It is not only an assurance of their resurrection and that of those whom they loved, but it also assures everyone who experiences the groaning of creation. All of them and all of us, too, eagerly await a renewed world where all the painful things people endure now will disappear forever.

On that day all inequalities will end, all environmental problems will disappear, and all injustices will cease.  What a glorious promise!

I for one am eagerly looking forward to that day. It cannot come soon enough! A day when God's glory will illuminate everything and the kings of the earth will bring their treasures into God's holy city (Rev. 21:23-24).

This promise is not only for Christians but it includes everyone in the world. This is not an example of Christian triumphalism, but it points the entire creation to a future where the past and present will be seen in a new light.

These were some of my reflections on Easter Sunday. They helped me. I hope they can help you as well.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Overcoming fear

We must learn how to overcome fear. When I talk about fear in this instance, I am not referring to the fears that many of us have about death, heights, spiders, and so on. What I am talking about is the number one fear of many people today, according to polls, the fear of terrorist attacks.

The fear of such attacks is an induced fear. It comes from the outside, in contrast to many other fears that are internal and self-generated. This fear can be generated both by the terrorists themselves or by governments that use fear for their own political ends, as I have written about previously,

Ever since 9/11 and the "war on terror" that followed, many governments have played the fear card, Fear is useful in order to persuade voters to support their new measures, including war, or to distract people from the failures of the government by focusing their attention elsewhere.

Without 9/11, the US would not have plunged itself into the Middle Eastern swamp, where it still unable to extricate itself. In the process, the US created Al-Qaeda and the other denizens of this swamp.

The Canadian government is now playing the same card with the introduction of Bill C-51, which grants new powers to Canada's spy agency, CSIS, but does so at the expense of the rights and freedoms that the Constitution guarantees all Canadians.

The Conservative government also extended the term of reference of the forces that it sent to Iraq to fight the Islamic State. Not only will another year be added but it also mandates these forces to bomb Syria, even though international law does not permit this. The justification the government offers was that ISIS has declared war on Canada,and thus Canada needs to defend itself.

According to a Conservative party email, all these measures are necessary to protect Canadians from morphing into Islamic State North. But the tool that it uses is fear, in this case the fear of terrorists.

The government is using this tool for political reasons: in order to distract voters in the election that is scheduled for the fall from the economy, which is dismal because of the drop in the price of oil, as well as the potentially embarrassing trials of several former Conservative senators.

What can Canadians do in response to this induced fear? Thomas Carlyle taught, "The first duty of man is to conquer fear; he must get rid of it, he cannot act till then." Fear has been aptly described as a prison.

How do we escape that prison? I have four suggestions, although without doubt there are many more. The first of these is the truth. John 8:32 expresses it succinctly; "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Gloria Steinem presents the same idea, but in a rather pithy fashion, "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off." 

Governments varnish their lies with a thin coating of truth, since lies always need a smidgen of truth to be believed. When it comes to terrorism, fear drives people to seek protection. And, if governments cannot provide real protection, they offer a surrogate, something that makes people feel good.

Sadly, many people prefer the false comfort that the lie provides to the harsh reality of the truth. Or, as Nietzsche puts it, "Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed." Lao Tsu explains, "There is illusion greater than fear."

The lies have to be exposed, so that the truth can become visible again, even if the truth comes at the expense of having a false sense of security kicked out from under people. They need the truth which alone will set them free.

Is ISIS going to invade Canada? Not likely? But does the Canadian presence in Iraq and Syria place Canadians troops there under a greater threat? Probably, but that will not increase the threat to Canadians at home, where the main threat continues to come from "lone wolves." Those people act independently from ISIS, even if they do share some of the beefs that many jihadists do.

In addition to invoking the truth, we must behave according to that famous triad of faith, hope and love in 1 Corinthians. And we must encourage others to be similarly motivated. Then, and only then, will they leave the lies behind and boldly accept the truth.

On his death bed, Jack Layton, who led the NDP in the previous federal election to second place and thus became the Leader of the Opposition, penned these now famous words, "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world." This is the same triad, with optimism substituting for faith.

Another way of expressing faith is found in these words: "Have no fear. God is near." Fear and faith are similar; the difference is that fear is faith in the wrong direction. As St. Augustine teaches, "Faith is to believe what we do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what we believe."

When people trust in God, they do not have to fear those who want to terrorize them or who spread such fears for political gain. Faith inoculates them against fear. Or to use another image, it drives fear away so that people are no longer fearful.

When people trust in God, they are also able to trust in one another. When that trust is reciprocated, there is mutual trust, an idea that Dwight D. Eisenhower has encapsulated in this warning: "This world of ours... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect."

Hope follows faith just as despair is the product of fear. Goethe once observed, "In all things it is better to hope than to despair." To get rid of despair, people must first examine their souls and discover the hope that resides there.

Alexander Pope stressed that hope is always present: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast. Man never is, but always to be blessed."  Somewhere hope has been described as "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all."

Hope makes it possible for people to see past all the smoke and mirrors of all the induced fears and to see everything as it really is. Hope restores 20/20 vision to everyone by eliminating fear. Then people can no longer be misled by their leaders whose only concern is themselves, not those whom they were elected to serve.

1 Corinthians 13:13 records these immortal words: "Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."  Love is the most important tool in fighting fear, as 1 John 4: 18 explains: "There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear."

Perfect love is a mature love that does not divide the world into "us" and "them" as happens with induced fears that teach us to hate others. Erich Fromm explains what mature love is: "Immature love says: 'I love you because I need you.' Mature love says 'I need you because I love you.'" Mature love is able to love those those whom fear makes us hate.

In war, people are incapable of killing others until they have been demonized. Love rejects this demonization. Love is incapable of Islamophobia. Love accepts everyone unconditionally. Where there is love there is no room anymore for fear. Fear is gone forever.

We can escape the prison of fear, specifically the induced fear of terrorist attacks, Here are my four suggestions. You can add your own. Fear can overcome using these four tools. Spread the message, so that all those who are still in prison can be released as well.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Let's Demand Integrity from Our Politicians

It is high time to demand integrity from our politicians. Integrity can be defined as "the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness." The Bible affirms the importance of integrity in many passages. In fact, it demands integrity.

Unfortunately, this character trait often seems to be lacking in politicians. While I I do not mean to suggest that all politicians are challenged in this way, some are, and they are the ones who give all politicians a bad name. 

Admittedly, only a few politicians seem to totally lacking in integrity. One such politician is the
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who recently revealed his lack of integrity to the whole world. And, as he is discovering, there is an enormous price to pay.

Barely three days after Netanyahu had told Israeli voters that there would not be a Palestinian state if he were to be reelected as prime minister, and only two days after the Israeli election, he reversed his pre-election promise..

"I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands, is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel," Netanyahu had told an Israeli news website only a day before the election.

But Netanyahu made a 180 degree turn when he said on an American network, "I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution," while insisting, "I haven't changed my policy."

Some voices in Israel and elsewhere later tried to soften these remarks by suggesting that Netanyahu only rejected a Palestinian state at present but not forever. However, I do not find their evidence convincing when they charge that left-wing papers in Israel had lied about these remarks, and the world press picked up the lie and broadcast it.

Netanyahu being interviewed on American television

Netanyahu's vow was instrumental in helping the embattled prime minister surge ahead of his opponents to an unexpected victory in the election, His statement on election day itself, when he raised the fear of Israeli Arab voters flocking to the polls, also contributed to his victory. 

After the election, the Obama administration issued a statement that it would "reevaluate its policy on how to best achieve a two-state solution." The US has now threatened to no longer defend Israel from motions directed against that country at the United Nations.Many other nations are also reevaluating their attitude to Israel in the light of Netanyahu's flip-flop. 

Many in the international community openly wonder which policy represents the real Netanyahu: the Netanyahu who famously endorsed a two-state solution at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, or the man who veered far to the right in order to win reelection in 2015?

Is Netanyahu representative of many politicians who speak out of both sides of their mouths, by saying one during an election campaign and trumpeting a very different message afterwards?

Politicians are proverbially assumed to be liars. In poll after poll all over the world, they come near the bottom of the list in terms of trustworthiness. This negative trait is especially prevalent during elections, but is not unknown at other times.

The main issue, as I have already suggested, is integrity. Politicians often seem to be ethically challenged. Not only are they assumed to be liars but they are also infamous for financial irregularities and other examples of malfeasance. The latter are crimes for which they can possibly be indicted, but rarely are politicians sent to jail or even fined for lying.

Integrity and some of its synonyms

While perjury -- lying while under oath -- is a crime, election promises that are made but not kept is not. If such promises were crimes, our prisons would be packed with politicians. Examples of lying politicians abound from many countries.

When I lived in the Philippine, during one election the Communist party of the Philippines (Maoist) threatened to kill any politicians on our island who did not keep their election promises. That is one way to deal with lying politicians, but I do not recommend it.

The example of Netanyahu ought to suffice to prove my point regarding politicians who during election campaigns speak out of both sides of their mouths. Few, however, do that as brazenly as him.

Permit  me to  point to another instance of lying that is perhaps not as easily identified as such. Is fear-mongering a form of lying? It is, especially if politicians know that the fears are not legitimate, and if those fears are used to generate votes during elections.

Again, Netanyahu is a master in the art of fear-mongering. He did this during the latest election campaign when he warned on election day that Israeli Arabs were flocking to the polls. In the past he had similarly used the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons. to win the support of Israelis.

Netanyahu did that most notably in a landmark speech to the United Nations in 2012. He brandished a cartoon drawing of a bomb and claimed that Iran was moving ahead with plans that would allow it to potentially build a nuclear bomb within a year or so.

Netanyahu addressing the UN about Iran and its bomb threat

The following month, Mossad, the Israeli spy agency revealed in a leaked secret cable that his claim was false, it said,"Iran at this stage is not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons."

Not only was Netanyahu lying, but he used fear-mongering to manipulate not only Israelis but the whole world. This man has revealed himself as duplicitous and lacking in integrity. Lest Americans feel smug about this, former President Richard Nixon earned the nickname "Tricky Dick" for his behavior. Netanyahu has plenty of company from other politicians worldwide who are also ethically challenged.

Netanyahu has probably learned by now that he may have won the election through his duplicitous remarks, but that his victory came at an enormous cost not only for himself but for many others as well.

For one thing, Netanyahu totally alienated the Israeli Arabs, who constitute 20% of the population. They have always been suspicious of his commitment to the two-state solution but they now despair entirely of achieving a Palestinian state through negotiations. The only route open to statehood by the Palestinians seems to be by means of a unilateral declaration. Netanyahu also earned their ire by branding them the way he did it, which borders on racism.

Netanyahu won by diverting votes from other right-wing partied to his Likud, but these other parties are by now suspicious of him and his duplicity. They may yet form part of his coalition, but they will not entirely trust a man who has a long history of flip-flopping.

Netanyahu celebrating victory with supporters

Netanyahu damaged his reputation as well among the other political parties in the Knesset, as well as with many Jews both at home and in the Diaspora. He has thus added yet another nail to his political coffin. Their distrust of him has been confirmed again.

The relationship with the US has also been seriously damaged. There was already bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu, but this has escalated to the point that Israel can no longer count automatically on American support at the UN. This is serious, since Israel depends on US support.

In other world capitals many leaders now feel that Netanyahu's credibility is shot and that they will no longer work with him, even though they voiced the traditional platitudes after his election victory.

The greatest cost, unfortunately, will be borne by Israelis and Palestinians, They will suffer the most for Netanyahu's scandalous attempt to save his own political skin.

There is a warning here for all politicians who make a similar attempt to save their own skins in elections. People should no longer tolerate the lack of integrity. If politicians do display such duplicity, they should be replaced. While they may win in the short term, as Netanyahu did, in the long run they and their country will have much to lose.

Prime Minister Harper, you have been warned! Do not attempt any further fear-mongering. You may yet win the election, but it will come at the expense of your integrity.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Is the Islamic State really Islamic?

This post was delayed for several days. One reason is my research into the motivation for the recent destruction of Iraq's artifacts. This process led me to modify my ideas and I now offer them, albeit somewhat tentatively, since they are not yet part of mainstream thought at least in North America where the Islamic State, Islam, and terrorism are all equated by most people. I seriously question this equation and I hope to share my thoughts more extensively on this in a further posting.

The Islamic State (IS) continues to destroy Iraq's ancient artifacts. For a while now IS has been methodically demolishing the ancient cultural heritage of Iraq.(see video). If it has its way, it would destroy that heritage elsewhere.as well. What motivated IS to do this? And this raises another pertinent question: by destroying these artifacts is it really Islamic?

IS is not alone in engaging in such a cultural rampage. The Taliban did the same in Afghanistan when they destroyed the enormous Bamiyan Statues of Buddha. There are more examples of this from history, including those involving other religions. But the question is, are they all identical?

Christians did something similar when they destroyed the Library of Alexandria in the fourth century, and later engaged in an orgy of iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries. Iconoclasm is the destruction of religious icons and other images from religious or political motives, but the religious element seems to have predominated.

This early example of Christian iconoclasm was motivated by their interpretation of the second commandment which forbids the making and worshiping of "graven images," but there were also political factors that led to the elimination of images. The advance of Islam, with its own prohibition of images, also contributed to this development.

During the Reformation, John Calvin, among others, encouraged the removal of religious images from churches because of the same commandment, although this removal was generally orderly. There were also iconoclastic riots, inspired by the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, which were more destructive.

Islamic iconoclasm (or more properly, aniconism) is motivated by the prohibition of creating images of sentient living beings, especially those of Allah, the prophet Muhammad and his associates. Some Muslims add that the prohibition extends to the depiction of all humans and animals.

In Saudi Arabia, the destruction of early Islamic heritage sites, including mosques, cemeteries, and tombs, and other religious structures, were the result of a policy to erase any elements that might give rise to practices contrary to the strict Wahhabi creed that is still prevalent in parts of that country.

Yet even these examples (with the possible exception of the destruction of the Library in Alexandria which was local and religiously-motivated) should not be compared with wholesale destruction that IS is perpetrating in the parts of Iraq that it controls, although the Saudi example does anticipate it. But there commercial factors played a leading role, since new hotels and other buildings needed to be built for the many Muslims pilgrims who came every year for the Hajj.

The motivation for IS to destroy these artifacts is not chiefly financial, even though it lost a lot of oil revenue in the current fighting in Iraq. The Taliban and al-Qaeda have resorted to this practice as well as a major source of income. The sale of artifacts can be used to raise funds for the fighting which has suffered some setbacks lately. But money does not explain the destruction of religious shrines, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

A photo posted by ISIS that shows the destruction of what appears to be a Sufi shrine

Some have speculated that IS wants to provoke the US into a holy war, but that is extremely unlikely, since the West only offered money to help preserve the statues of Buddha and no further aid.

The primary motivation should be sought in the ideology that drives IS. It is largely political, part of a publicity campaign to grab the religious and political leadership mantle in the Middle East.

Although IS self-identifies itself as Islamic, it is not, as I shall argue more extensively in a future posting. Thus it should not be branded with the label Islamic when it is not recognized as such by many Muslims.

IS indeed presents an Islamic face, but its true roots are found in the alliance between self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime. It is this alliance that has shaped IS into the monster that the world sees today -- one that destroys ancient artifacts, and even more seriously, executes its enemies in a cold-blooded way that is contrary to Islam. (Watch the video that illustrates this.)

Although Baghadadi clearly presents himself as a Muslim, which is only natural as Caliph, the operational experience of the former Ba'athist senior officers is equally evident in the way the fighting has proceeded thus far. According to one expert, the Ba'athist elements are key and without them IS would not have been able to hold Mosul.

This is a marriage of convenience in which an ostensible religious force is united with a secular or ideological one to such an extent that the result is something which is neither, but instead a new force that shares some of the traits of both, but in which the true Islamic spirit has been lost.

Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Muslim leaders, whether Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Sufi, conservative or liberal, have almost unanimously condemned and denounced IS not merely as un-Islamic but actively anti-Islamic.The wholesale slaughter of prisoners by IS, although not unknown in the history of Islam, is not true to the Islamic faith, in spite of the protests of many people who know next to nothing about Islam.

The ideology of IS has a religious veneer, but the driving force is secular. The destruction of Iraqi artifacts was motivated not only by a need for funding but especially by the desire to appear Islamic and thus win a following both in the Middle East and overseas. 

Although the destruction by IS bears similarities to what other groups had done in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, IS did it with a ruthlessness that has become its hallmark, just as the cold-blooded killing of prisoners is. This violence should not be associated automatically with Islam, especially if so many Muslims deny this.

As I shall explain further in another posting, It is not fair to Muslims to equate Islam and terrorism if they themselves deny that equation. Would Christians want their faith to be equated with every form of brutality that takes place in so-called Christian countries?

For example, should Christians be blamed for the Holocaust in Nazi Germany?  No doubt there were German Christians who were involved in the Holocaust as guards or whatever, but this does not mean that their faith should be blamed for this crime against humanity. There were many German Christians who protested. Some, like Bonhoeffer, paid the ultimate price for their protests.

If many Muslims want nothing to do with IS and reject its ideology completely, then that should warn non-Muslims not to equate Islam and terrorism, and certainly not IS and Muslims who are living in the Western world, as if these men and women are all potential IS-inspired terrorists.

The remains of the last synagogue in Iraq, in Al Qosh with the tomb of the prophet Nahum

Bill C-51 in Canada makes such an assumption. The government has stoked the fear of Islam so much that many Canadians seem willing to sacrifice some of the freedoms for the protection supposedly offered by this bill. Many Canadians, myself included, are protesting it. However, this is a necessary digression from my examination of the motivation of IS.

IS seems to be using the destruction of ancient artifacts in Iraq to establish its credentials as the leader of the Islamic world, both spiritually and politically. Under the guise of religion. it destroys the heritage of Iraq for political reasons.

In many other examples of iconoclasm, the motivation was largely an attempt to protect the purity of the faith. The fear of idolatry was foremost in many of them. But is this also true of IS? Many Muslims would respond in the negative, since for them IS does not truly represent Islam.

Many Westerners reject this denial, but much of this rejection is often based on a lack of knowledge of Islam. Even some experts on Islam support those who claim that IS is an extreme form of Islam, even though many Muslims do not.

It is unreasonable for the West to plead that Muslims condemn the jihadists, and then to reject their insistence that IS is not really Islamic but, in fact, anti-Islamic. To label IS as an extreme form of Islam only helps to feed the Islamophobia that is so prevalent in many Western countries today.

It has taken me a while to digest and then accept the argument of many Muslims. I hope to present this more fully later. As mentioned in my introduction, this has delayed the publication of this post.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Murder in Moscow

A leading Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. was cruelly murdered in Moscow. He was shot four times as he was crossing a bridge only steps from the Kremlin, which is probably the most secure place in Russia. He was likely under surveillance before a march planned for Sunday. This suggests the killers were professionals, and were not afraid of detection. Nemtsov is survived by his wife and four children.

The murder of such a prominent political figure has not happened in the decades since the breakup of the Soviet Union, although lesser figures have been killed in the violent atmosphere that is endemic in Russia and has been fostered by President Vladimir Putin. Some think this would not be the last killing of an opposition leader in Russia.

Nemtsov, a star politician in the 1990s who was once seen as a potential successor to Boris Yeltsin, had been marginalized in recent years. He had been preparing for an anti-Kremlin march scheduled for Sunday. Hours before he was killed, he did a radio interview urging people to attend the march, and connecting the country’s economic woes to Putin’s policy in Ukraine. 

"The most important reason for the crisis is aggression, which led to sanctions and, in turn, isolation," Nemtsov said. He understood that he, along with everyone else involved in anti-Putin politics, was being pushed to the fringes. "Three years ago, we were an opposition. Now we are no more than dissidents."

Previous to Nemtsov's murder. the last assassination in Moscow was that of Stanislav Markelov, a human-rights lawyer, who, along with the journalist Anastasia Baburova, was killed outside a subway stop in 2009. A few years earlier, in 2006, the renowned journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in her apartment building.

Thus far, there has been no public explanation of why Nemtsov died, but many theories abound. The most likely reason for his violent death is because he was one of Putin's most vocal critics.

Nemtsov has accused Putin of waging a war against Ukraine. He apparently had proof of Russian involvement and was going to publish it. This evidence will now be published posthumously. His opposition to Russia's annexation of the Crimea last year also emphatically made him one of the major enemies of the Kremlin.

Nemtsov has also accused Putin of rampant corruption, claiming that he enjoys a life of immense luxury with personal palaces, yachts and aircraft at his disposal. The Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed these accusations, but other sources claim that Putin is worth as much as 70 billion dollars. Even this amount does not include all the assets he could claim at the end of his presidency through favors he has done for family, friends and associates.

Perhaps the most outlandish theory is that the killing was meant to frame Putin."There is no doubt that Boris Nemtsov’s murder was organised by the agencies outside Russia who are trying to organize a Russian Maidan," according to Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst. "The enemies of Putin have killed one of Putin’s strongest critics in order to push the blame on to Putin."
Laying the blame on outside forces is typical of the Putin regime, who have blamed the West for the insurgency in Ukraine, and thus conveniently detract from any connection with Russia.

Other theories include forces that were trying to destabilize the political situation in Russia or Islamic extremists who did this in revenge for Nemtsov's stance on the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris.

Anatoly Chubais, a businessman, former liberal politician and associate of Nemtsov, said the country was entering a dangerous period: "A demand for hatred and aggression has been created. Several days ago, people were marching with banners saying let’s destroy the fifth column. Today, Nemtsov is killed. Let’s stop and think about what might happen tomorrow. Everyone must stop. All of us. Authorities, opposition, liberals, communists, nationalists … Everyone needs to stop and have a think."

In 2012, Putin warned publicly that his opponents were prepared to murder one of their own so they could blame him for the death. "They are looking for a so-called sacrificial victim among some prominent figures." He added, "They will knock him off, I beg your pardon, and then blame the authorities for that.”

Those close to Nemtsov believe the 55-year-old former deputy prime minister may have been killed by shady nationalist forces reacting to a long propaganda campaign on state-controlled television calling the political opposition traitors.
For a while, a giant poster hung on the side of Moscow’s main bookstore with the face of Nemtsov, among others. "The fifth column: there are strangers among us," it read. The most apocalyptic and vile of Russia’s television hosts, Dmitri Kiselyov took pleasure in naming and insulting members of the so-called "fifth column." He noted, "Putin legalized that term in the political language of Russia." That act of legalization, according to Kiselyov, means that any number of people or factions could have murdered Nemtsov. 

Nemtsov at a rally with a sign saying "Towards a Russia and Ukraine without Putin."

Ten days before his death, Nemtsov admitted that he was afraid Putin could have him killed, but "not that much." He thought that his prominence in the country would protect him. Apparently, it did not.

A few hours after Nemtsov’s death,  another associate, Vladimir Ryzhkov, blamed "the atmosphere of hate that was artificially created" by the state and its supporters, "Anti-liberal propaganda has fostered the sense of mutual hatred in society. What we have is a situation that could detonate at any moment."

"This killing demonstrates to what extent hatred has been legitimized or even sanctioned in Russia. Society was irritated for a long time, but when the hatred comes from TV screens, it makes a big difference," Ryzhkov added.

"Regardless of who killed Nemtsov, it's perfectly clear why this murder was committed. It was done simply to demonstrate the 'structure of the situation,'" claims Alexander Morozov, a political scientist. He explains, "The structure of the situation demands that there must be killings, and the more killings, the better."

Some are already asking, if Nemtsov’s death will presage a wave of political purges? In the current climate, almost anything seems possible. Either the authorities would kill someone who poses little real political danger, or they have given rise to a venomous hatred that they can no longer control.

The banner reads, "Heroes never die. Those bullets are for everyone of us."

Nemtsov's murder will not silence the opposition. On the contrary, it may have breathed new life into it. In death this charismatic, Orthodox politician may yet achieve more than he did in a life that was prematurely terminated by four bullets on a Moscow street. 

Immense, angry crowds turned out in Moscow Sunday to march through the city in honor of slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was supposed to appear at Sunday's rally protesting Russia’s role in the fighting in Ukraine, but he it was converted into a memorial march. More than 50,000 people marched along the banks of Moskva River under gray skies to the site of his death. Other rallies in honor of Nemtsov took place in at least 15 other Russian cities.

Although I did not personally know Nemtsov, I frequently saw his face on Russian TV, as I did that of some other people whom I have cited, including Chubais and Kiselyov. I am saddened that this prominent opposition figure was so cruelly gunned down near the Kremlin by persons unknown. 

It is not my job to assign blame, but I suspect those ultimately responsible for this murder may never be identified. That is the sad state of Putin's Russia, where justice is rare and determined by the rich and powerful. I rejoice that there is a greater Judge, who will dispense justice fairly.