Friday, July 25, 2014

X-ray of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The recent bombings in Gaza are only the latest in the long conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians that dates back to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This conflict is so long and protracted that it would require many books to trace all the twists and turns for almost seven decades, all the hopes that were raised and then dashed, all the countless that have been lives lost, and the heartbreak experienced by so many people on both sides.

Such a history is certainly beyond my competence, although I have studied the conflict off and on for many years. Moreover, it is impossible for me to describe the most recent actions in detail, much less provide even a brief history of it in this post.

What I want to do is take an x-ray of this conflict in order to expose the root of the problems and perhaps suggest a way forward. X-rays are useful as I discovered again a few days ago when I had x-rays taken of my back. From them some long-standing problems became visible, although the reasons are not yet clear.

At the risk of oversimplifying the conflict and the many issues involved, such as borders, security, water rights, control of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian freedom of movement, and Palestinian claims of a right of return for their refugees, the main barrier to a resolution is a the lack of mutual recognition.

Simply put, neither side is willing to concede the other's right to exist. Palestinians, exemplified especially by Hamas, refuse to accept the existence of the State of Israel, which was formed in 1948 as a new homeland for Jews after the Holocaust. Together with many others in the Arab world, they would like nothing better than to push the Israelis into the Mediterranean.

But drowning is not an alternative for Israelis. As the former prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir, put it so succinctly, "We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs; we have no place to go."

Many Israelis, in turn, refuse to accept the reality of the Palestinian people. Again Meir in 1969 expressed it so well, "It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them," she said. "They did not exist." For her then, and for many Israelis today, Palestinians are not recognized as a people. If they were, they would have a right to land.

A people who had no land acquired it by denying that those who were living there at the time were a people. Until mutual recognition is achieved, all the other issues are irrelevant. This is the primary issue. The others can be resolved only when there is such recognition. They can be discussed, but such discussions will remain academic until then.

Unfortunately, these two people both have historical claims to the same land. Either they accept each other and share the land or this conflict will continue, maybe, forever. The historical periods do not overlap, and thus both sides have a strong case. Only by turning a blind eye and denying the existence of the other can each side maintain the fiction that their claim to the land is exclusive.

The other issues can be resolved either first, by laying the groundwork for a final resolution, or afterwards, in order to wrap up the loose ends, but eventually the issue of mutual recognition will need to be dealt with. There is no way to avoid that issue.

Currently there does not seem to be a pending resolution of this issue. The present spate of fighting in Gaza is causing a lot of bad blood, while the loss of life on both sides is almost intolerable. And, what is worse, people outside of Israel and Palestine are taking sides. The support that I have seen for one side or the other is often unbalanced, laying all the blame on one party. Very few voices partition the blame equitably.

In fact, a fair share of the blame must also be laid at the door of those countries that supply the arms and money, notably the US, but also some Gulf countries that have supplied Hamas with newer rockets that can reach all the major cities of Israel.

Before any further negotiations take place, there must be a cease fire in Gaza. Both sides should stop the bombings immediately. There are already overtures to that effect being made by the US Secretary of State. Unfortunately, this time Egypt seems unable to act as an honest broker because of the bad blood between the Egyptian president and Hamas.

Hamas has promised to stop firing rockets into Israel, if the economic blockade of Gaza is lifted. Israel should honor this demand, albeit with further assurances from the US if necessary. It's "Iron Dome" already provides protection for many Israeli cities. While not full-proof and very expensive, this missile system gives a large degree of protection to ordinary Israelis.

Any cease-fire should include further incentives to Hamas, including release of a small number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and the partial payment of suspended government salaries in Gaza, perhaps by Qatar.

A cease-fire can be timed to coincide with the Muslim feast of Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. A seven-day truce, as has been proposed, can then be extended to allow negotiations on all the thorny issues that have fueled this conflict for so many decades, especially the matter of mutual recognition. 

A willingness on the part of Hamas to enter into such negotiations can be made a condition for ending the blockade and returning any prisoners. Israel too will need pressure to enter these negotiations in good faith. Perhaps, with sufficient pressure, and lubricated by the prayers of believers everywhere, this conflict may one day be resolved. 

Eid ul-Fitr may not be the opportune moment this time for a ceasefire. As I am writing this, Israel seems to have turned down this proposal. Even if it not possible on this date, that does not mean that all is lost. There have been alout three weeks already of intense fighting and an enormous loss of life, especially civilians. The bombing of a UN-run school in Gaza by Israel has been widely condemned. People have had enough. It is high time to end the violence in Gaza and throughout the land that is in dispute between Israel and Palestine.

I am not holding my breath that seven decades of conflict will be resolved any time soon, but the violence in Gaza and elsewhere must end. There is way too much violence in the world today. Violence never solves any problems; it only creates more. There has been too much suffering already. All of this must end.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

MH17 and the insanity of war

Before leaving on a long trip I always take a moment to pray for safe travel, especially when I am flying. Air travel can be very dangerous, but what one does not expect is to be shot down by a missile. Yet that is what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777-200, on an otherwise routine flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17. While flying over eastern Ukraine at an altitude of 33,000 feet, and just about to enter Russian airspace, MH17 was shot down. All 298 passengers and crew were killed.

As now seems most likely, this commercial airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian military transport, probably by pro-Russian insurgents, using a BUK-2M (which Americans refer to as SA-11) surface-to-air missile system. Each system includes four missiles. (See illustration below).

In fact, it was the third plane shot down over Ukraine that week. On Monday, July 14, an Antonov AN-26 Ukrainian military transport plane was hit by a missile while flying over eastern Ukraine at an altitude of 21,000 feet, which is far beyond the range of a shoulder-fired system. Then, two days later, a Ukrainian Sukhoi SU-25 fighter jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainians immediately blamed the Russian military ground or air forces for the first two incidents.

There are several theories about who shot down MH17, aside from blaming it on the Americans. Maybe this specific attack was by Ukrainian military forces with Buk training who had defected to the rebels. Maybe it was by Ukrainian rebels who had received extensive Russian training on that system, which would raise the question of why Russia would give this training and what that would mean for Moscow's complicity. Or maybe it was by the Russians, as the Ukrainian government charges.

In these possible scenarios, it seems most likely that whoever fired on MH17 probably thought they were shooting at another Ukrainian military plane, as they did a few days earlier, not realizing this was a civilian airliner. But that does not in any way excuse what happened. Murder is still murder, even if it is by mistake.

That it was a mistake seems corroborated by a series of recordings of conversations intercepted by the Secret Service of Ukraine in which a rebel speaks to a Russian commander about an airplane that they had just shot down, but soon come to the realization that it was a civilian plane. Their excuses for what they did was that the plane was bringing in spies, it was in Ukrainian airspace, and there was a war going on.

As yet there is no solid evidence that Moscow planned the missile attack. But, as Canada's Foreign Minister, John Baird, phrased it in rather undiplomatic language, "the Kremlin may not have pulled the trigger but it certainly loaded the gun and put it in the murderer’s hand."

MH17 illustrates the insanity of war. There are more illustrations, if any more were needed. The outbreak of fighting in Gaza, with its daily quota of deaths, primarily Palestinian, but now also Israeli, civilians (which I will deal with in a future post). The kidnappings and cold-blooded murders committed by Boko Haram (which I have covered several times already) and the ongoing conflict in Syria are only a few of many examples.

In total there are currently armed conflicts (as of July, 2014) in 62 countries, involving 549 militias or guerrillas and separatist groups. How wasteful of human and material resources! How tragic for those who have died and the loved ones they left behind! This is insane!

Insanity has been described as doing the same thing time and time again, but expecting a different result. In the case of armed conflicts, the result will always be the same: a tragic loss of life. MH17 proves this.

The shooting down of a civilian airliner, even if it was a mistake, should not happen under any circumstances. While one is finishing a glass of wine with the dessert after the meal, one does not expect to blown out of the sky. An explosion should not herald plummeting to earth to certain death from a height of ten kilometers.

Other civilians are killed during wars. They are euphemistically referred to as "collateral damage." They should not be the hapless victims of these conflicts, yet they are. Unfortunately, most people pay little or no attention, until these deaths occur close to home. The deaths of innocent men, women and children from so many nations has brought this tragic event close to home for people everywhere.

This is especially true in the Netherlands, which lost almost 200 of its citizens on MH17. That country happens to be where I was born, so this event has brought it close to home for me as well. There was also one Canadian who died. He lived near Toronto, where I now make my home. Eight other nations lost citizens: Malayzia, Australia, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Philippines and New Zealand. A few of the dead held dual citizenships, including American.

The shooting down of MH17 has the potential to turn into a much larger conflict. As an opinion piece in The Toronto Star puts it: When a war rages anywhere in our globalized world, it can metastasize in ways we have not imagined. Twenty years ago, the Afghan civil war sowed the seeds for 9/11. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war has spilled into Iraq. And today, in Ukraine, Russian revanchism and Western indifference have fueled a conflict that has claimed the lives of people that played no role in it at all.

Western nations have for a long time ignored the conflict in Ukraine. European governments and companies have continued to develop natural gas deals with Russia while Ukraine was being dismantled.  A dependence on Russian energy has hamstrung Europe’s policy-makers, who struggled to put together a unified response to Ukraine’s troubles, yet have been slow to impose anything but mild sanctions on a few individuals.

Canada and the US were also slow to act. Only last week did the US finally impose severe sanctions on Russian state-owned firms that will seriously hamper their ability to do business. Some Russian billionaires are already feeling the effect from sanctions that were imposed after Crimea. Canada has delivered a limited amount of aid to Ukraine, but has largely refused to take a firmer stance against the Kremlin. Only now is it adding more economic sanctions.

Western nations have not acted earlier because of economic interests which trumped their concern for democracy. This plays right into Putin's hands. His end game, I surmise, is the dissolution of the European Union and the thwarting of democracy in the countries immediately surrounding Russia.

Sanctions, by themselves, may not be enough to deter Putin from further adventures in Ukraine. Western nations should refuse to sell arms to Russia. France, especially, will resist this step, since it has a multi-billion dollar deal to sell warships for the Russian navy. Britain will also continue to tread gingerly in its dealings with Russia because so much Russian wealth is entrusted to banks in the City.

In the aftermath of MH17, there are now signs that Britain is finally willing to impose more severe sanctions on Russia, including "tier three" ones that are directed at entire economic sectors rather than simply against businessmen and companies. That will increase the bite on Putin's friends even more.

In the Netherlands people are seething with anger, and will not tolerate any further dealings with the country that they blame for the loss of so many of the fellow citizens on MH17. Putin has destroyed the long-standing bridges with the Netherlands that date back to Peter the Great.

The Netherlands is one big village, where everyone watches the same TV programs and reads the same newspapers. Their anger is directed against the Ukrainian rebels and their Russian backers. That will not soon subside. It will take a long time, in fact. for the wounds of MH17 to heal, especially if many months will be required to identify all the bodies that are being brought to the Netherlands for identification.

War is insane, as MH17 proves. What further evidence is necessary? So, let's stop this insanity! Let's stop these conflicts and all the suffering that results! One step is to stop selling arms to those who engage in such wanton acts of violence, whether in Ukraine, the Middle East, or elsewhere. Enough is enough!

Some of the first bodies being returned to the Netherlands

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Genesis of a new caliph

Abu Bakr, the first caliph, in Arabic calligraphy

On 29 June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared the territories under its control, which straddles the Iraq-Syria border, to be a new caliphate called the Islamic State (IS), and named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph.  A few days later, in a video purported to be of him, Baghdadi declared himself the world leader of Muslims and called on Muslims everywhere to support him.

Perhaps a brief explanation of what a caliph is might be in order before we examine al-Baghdadi and the genesis of his claims.

Caliph (in Arabic:خليفة‎ ḫalīfah/khalīfah) means "successor" -- in this case to the Prophet Muhammad. When Muhammad died in 632 AD, he left no instructions concerning a successor. That created an enormous problem and has led to the major division among Muslims into Sunnis and Shia.

The first four caliphs are known among Sunni Muslims as the Rashidun or "Rightly-Guided Ones." They are Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali. Of these four, only Ali is accepted by the Shia. Sunnis believe that caliphs should be chosen by election or community consensus.

In contrast, Shia Muslims believe that Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, should have replaced Muhammad as caliph and that caliphs were to assume authority through appointment by God rather than being chosen by the people. Thus of the Rashidun they recognize only Ali's caliphate.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gives a sermon at a mosque in the center of Iraq's second city,
Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet, July 5, 2014.

Caliphs can be both heads of state and spiritual leaders. Islam does not have a separation of mosque and state as do many Western nations. One of the dangers of that is neither mosque nor state can develop fully as they should when their .

Since the turbulent period following Muhammad's death, there have been many caliphs. There is widespread disagreement even today on who is really a caliph, how he should be selected, and what his authority  is. Thus it is hardly surprising that few Muslims outside of  the IS have acknowledged al-Baghdadi as caliph, even if many might wish for a caliphate.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been born in 1971 in Samara, Iraq. He was a cleric at the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He has a masters degree and a PhD degree in Islamic studies. Beyond that not much is known about this reclusive man, who is now called Caliph Ibrahim.

More pertinent to understanding Baghdadi is the time he spent in Afghanistan in the late 1990's, where he worked with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later founded the al-Qaeda group in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
After Zarqawi's returned to Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11, this group evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq ISI), following Zarqawi's death in 2006.

In Afghanistan both men have worked with the Taliban and had close contacts with Osama bin Laden. Both were later prominent players in the Sunni extremist movement in Iraq in its war against Shiism. Bagdadi, in fact, was present at its creation.

Zarqawi had a strained relationship with Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's successor in al-Qaeda. Zawahri had always been skeptical of Zarqawi and his associates, whom he regarded as too sectarian and bloodthirsty, and he had counseled bin Laden not to trust Zarqawi.

Baghdadi remained leader of the ISI until its formal expansion into Syria in 2013, when in April 2013, he announced the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is alternatively translated from the Arabic as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As the leader of ISIS, Baghdadi was in charge of running all ISIS activity in Iraq and Syria as emir, until that office was abolished on 29 June 014.

Early in 2014, Zawahri expelled Baghdadi from al-Qaeda. Baghdadi claims to be caliph, and he aspires to command all of Islam through what is now called the Islamic State. But he is not alone in making such a claim. Mullah Omar, who is leader of the Afghan Taliban, asserts he is the true commander of the faithful.

Ayman al-Zawahri

Omar's claim goes back to the 1990s and was vouched for by bin Laden. Baghdadi probably believes he has now surpassed all his rivals. His decision to proclaim himself caliph directly challenges Omar's standing.

Omar is extremely taciturn and keeps himself hidden away n his Pakistani sanctuary near Quetta. He may well simply choose to ignore his rival's pretensions while hailing the successes of the jihad in the Middle East.

How did Baghdadi become caliph? It seems that simply declared himself as such, which is contrary to Sunni and Shia principles. Did God appoint him? Or was he elected? Even if IS did select him, he can hardly claim much support since the IS numbers are small, perhaps 7,000 to 20,000.

The declaration of a caliphate has been heavily criticized by Middle Eastern governments and other jihadist groups, and even Sunni theologians and historians, who might otherwise want to support a fellow Sunni.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the noted Egyptian Sunni theologian, states: "[The] declaration issued by the Islamic State is void under sharia and has dangerous consequences for the Sunnis in Iraq and for the revolt in Syria." He explains that the title of caliph can "only be given by the entire Muslim nation" and not by a single group.

While the word of a  prominent theologian is not the final word on the subject, Thus Westerners should not become too worried about the establishment of the IS. That declaration means very little until the IS can demonstrate effective control of their territory and neighboring countries and the international community recognize it. Such recognition is highly unlikely.

Similarly, Baghdadi's claim to be caliph means little until it is widely accepted. For example, I may want to call myself a king, but until I possess a territory and my claim to that territory is recognized, my declaration means little. Baghdadi's claim is equally meaningless. 

Having briefly traced the genesis of his claim to be caliph, we see that he seems a rather unsavory character who has been rejected by some fellow jihadists. His spiritual qualifications for the office of caliph are dubious and his tenure as head of state may not last very long.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Pride and prejudice

Pride and prejudice is the topic of this post, but it has little to do with Jane Austen's celebrated novel, except for the shared title. The many expressions of sexuality that this post mentions are certainly different from that of the book.

Toronto recently hosted World Pride 2014. This is the first time World Pride met in North America. The first was in Rome (2000), next in Jerusalem (2009), and then in London (2012). In 2017 it will meet in Madrid.

Toronto has organized a Pride Parade for many decades. This one, however, was the biggest ever, with an estimated 12,000 people participating in the parade and several million watching under the sweltering sun. I was unable to attend this year, but I was fascinated by some of the events, including a mass wedding of 115 same-sex couples at Casa Loma, one of Toronto's main attractions.

My purpose is not to describe this year's Toronto Pride event, which many newspapers have already done, but my intention is rather to reflect on this significant event which is the subject of great pride -- hence the name. This event reveals the both the pride and the intense prejudice that led to it in the past and even now prompts further prejudice, since some of what happens during the parade, such as public nudity, is purposely "in your face."  But that is the price we may have to pay for the celebration of Pride.

Earlier in the month Toronto hosted World Naked Bike Ride which, as the name indicates, has people ride as bare as they dare. Both events have nudity; the latter more than the former.

Blatant nudity: one of my objections to Pride

Prejudice gave birth to Pride. Raids by the police on four gay bathhouses in Toronto on February 5, 1981, led directly to massive protests and a "Gay Freedom Rally" a month later on March 6. This was effectively Toronto's first Pride event, and it later evolved into the annual Pride week held towards the end of June.

During that week people from the LGBT community can express their pride in the face of the widespread prejudice that existed. and continues to exist in many parts of Canada, even in Toronto. This is now one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world, while Toronto in the last few years has become more diverse and accepting of people regardless of their sexual orientation as well as their ethnicity.

Today the term LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) is often used. This is regarded as a more inclusive term than LGBT for people with non-mainstream sexual orientation or gender identity. Even more letters are sometimes used for those whose orientation or identity is not included on this list.

I admit I do not fully understand all these distinctions, but then I am not part of those communities. However, I do try to be accepting of them. In that respect, I am typical of many people in Toronto.

Toronto Coat of Arms

The motto of Toronto is "Diversity Our Strength." Toronto is a tolerant and inclusive city in which the World Pride parade serves as a symbol of the diversity of humanity as well as its unity. People of every orientation, including straight, can participate.

I am writing this post with some trepidation. Inevitably, I will be excoriated for publishing a defense of Pride, but I do so knowingly. I have many friends who are gays or lesbians. Some I have known for decades. While I myself am straight, I will defend them and their right to live as they deem best.

In addition, my local church prides itself on diversity, certainly in terms of sexual orientation. In adopting this stance it is, at least in part, in conflict with the official position of the Christian Reformed Church, which does not accept homosexuality. 

The still pertinent synodical pronouncement on the subject of homosexuality in the CRC dates back to 1973. It condemns homosexuality, although it encourages love and acceptance for homosexuals. This statement has been consistently sustained, in spite of pressures from both within and outside the denomination to modify it.

This position of the CRC has been summarized as follows (
Homosexuality is a condition of disordered sexuality that reflects the brokenness of our sinful world. Persons of same-sex attraction should not be denied community acceptance solely because of their sexual orientation and should be wholeheartedly received by the church and given loving support and encouragement. Christian homosexuals, like all Christians, are called to discipleship, holy obedience, and the use of their gifts in the cause of the kingdom. Opportunities to serve within the offices and the life of the congregation should be afforded to them as to heterosexual Christians. 
Homosexualism (that is, explicit homosexual practice), however, is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. The church affirms that it must exercise the same compassion for homosexuals in their sins as it exercises for all other sinners. The church should do everything in its power to help persons with homosexual orientation and give them support toward healing and wholeness. A synodical report titled Pastoral Care for Homosexual Members is available at
Needless to say, I disagree with this statement. The position of the CRC is outdated and does not reflect the current research on homosexuality. This statement is also only one interpretation of the Bible; there are many others. Unfortunately, the CRC is not alone in adopting it as its official stance. Many Christian denominations have done something similar.

The Roman Catholic Church condemns the practice of homosexuality as contrary to natural law. For this reason it is opposed to same-sex marriage. In spite of the desire of Pope Francis for changes in that church, the position on same-sex marriage is not likely to be modified any time soon.

The Orthodox churches also condemn homosexuality, as do many Protestant churches. The reasoning may differ, but the conclusions are almost the same.

One of the many same-sex couples married at Casa Loma

The Protestant position is clearly exemplified, as an example, in the decision of Trinity Western University in British Columbia to require all faculty and students to sign a form affirming that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. This requirement does not respect academic freedom and imposes a standard that not all Christians accept as biblical. It has also created an enormous furor regarding the establishment of a new law school by TWU. Some law societies in Canada regard this as inappropriate for a law school and, more importantly, as an infringement of human rights.

It is remarkable that Christians from many denominations, including Catholics, have been in the forefront of promoting change on homosexuality. In this respect, they are ahead of the general population, which tends to be even more conservative. This innate conservatism has been augmented by people coming from countries where homosexuality is forbidden and, in some cases, is punishable by death.

In Islam homosexuality is not only a sin but is regarded as a crime. Other religions also have objections to it. Traditionally, Judaism forbids it, but some Jewish denominations now do permit it. As might be expected, Hinduism and Buddhism have a wide variety of views on this.

My personal stance on the issue of homosexuality will no doubt be severely criticized by some, but I write with the hope that further discussion on this topic may prompt change in my own denomination as well as in many others. The CRC has thus far been unwilling to make changes, as have many other denominations, but change will come eventually.

While I cannot endorse everything associated with Pride, I hope I have over many years eliminated some of the prejudice that I admit I too have had in the past. Therefore, I encourage others to do the same.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Providing a refuge for 50 million plus displaced people

On World Refugee Day, June 20, 2014, the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, better known by its initials, UNHCR,  published its annual report Global Trends 2013: War's Human Cost. 

Contained in its 52 pages are lots of figures about the plight of refugees in the world. The 2013 level of displacement was the highest on record since comprehensive statistics on forced displacement were collected.

Displacement data covers three groups: refugees, asylum-seekers, and the internally displaced. Among them, the number of refugees amounted to 16.7 million people worldwide, 11.7 million of whom are under UNHCR’s care and the remainder are registered with its sister organization, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine.

This report, which is based on data compiled by governments and non-governmental partner organizations, and from the organization's own records, shows that 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2013, which was fully 6 million more than the 45.2 million reported the previous year.

This massive increase was driven mainly by the war in Syria, which at the end of last year forced 2.5 million people into becoming refugees, and produced 6.5 million internally displaced. A major new displacement was also seen in Africa, notably in Central African Republic and South Sudan.

The report notes that 3.5 million refugees, or one-third of the global total,, resided in countries covered by UNHCR’s Asia and Pacific region. Of these, more than 2.4 million were Afghans (69 per cent) who are now living in Pakistan and Iran.

Another one-quarter, or 2.9 million, of all refugees, came from sub-Saharan Africa, primarily from Somalia (778,400), Sudan (605,400), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (470,300), the Central African Republic (251,900), and Eritrea (198,700).

Behind these and the other figures, however, are the untold stories of men, women, and children about how they fled their homes, whether temporarily or permanently, and what their hopes are for the future. Although the report does picture a handful out of these many millions, it does not name them.

Figures can only measure the number of people affected, they do not describe the agony they experience on a daily basis. Nevertheless, this report does permit the world to see how extensive the problem of displaced people is. Also, governments are now no longer able to hide how little they are doing to alleviate the problem.

In addition to refugees, 2013 saw 1.1 million people submitting applications for asylum, the majority of these in developed countries. Germany in 2013 became the largest single recipient of new asylum claims. A record 25,300 asylum applications were from children who were separated from or unaccompanied by parents. Syrians lodged 64,300 claims, more than any other nationality, followed by asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (60,400) and Myanmar (57,400).

People who were forced to flee their homes but stayed within their own country totaled a record 33.3 million, the largest increase of any group in the Global Trends report. For UNHCR and other humanitarian actors, helping these people represents a special challenge as many are in conflict zones, where getting to aid to them is difficult and where they lack the international protection norms afforded to refugees. 

Renewed fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, Mali and the unstable security situation in the north east of Nigeria, all caused enormous numbers of civilians to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere within their own country.

At the same time, some 68,400 refugees were able to return to their homes in DRC last year, according to these statistics. They were among the 414,600 refugees who went back to their homelands, the goal of most refugees and the UN refugee agency. When voluntary return home is not possible, UNHCR seeks long-term solutions for refugees through local integration or resettlement in third countries. During the year, UNHCR submitted 93,200 refugees for resettlement, and some 71,600 departed with UNHCR’s assistance.

The latest conflict in Iraq, where Sunni extremist fighters are advancing southward toward Baghdad, does figure in the report since it covers 2013. But more than 1 million people have been displaced by fighting in Iraq so far this year -- half of them in the past couple of weeks. That's about one in 30 people nationwide who have fled their homes.

The worldwide population of stateless people is not included in the figure of 51.2 million forcibly displaced people, since being stateless does not necessarily correlate to being displaced. Statelessness remains hard to quantify because of the inherent difficulties governments and the UNHCR have in recording people who lack citizenship and related documentation. In addition, some countries do not gather data on populations they do not consider as their citizens. 

For 2013, UNHCR reported a figure of almost 3.5 million stateless people including 750,000 in West Africa, which is about a third of the number of people in the world estimated to be stateless.

By the end of 2013, Pakistan has continued to host the largest number of refugees in the world, 1.6 million, nearly all of whom were from Afghanistan. At the same time, voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan to Afghanistan has also been the largest in the world, with 3.8 million having been assisted by UNHCR to return home since 2002.

Developing countries, including many in Africa, now host 86 per cent of the worlds refugees, which is up from 70 per cent 10 years ago. Sub-Saharan Africa hosts about one-quarter of all refugees in the world. Three African countries were among the top 10 refugee-hosting countries in the world: Kenya (534,900 refugees), Chad (434,000) and Ethiopia (433,900).

Canada does not make the list of refugee-hosting countries. Historically, Canada has been one of the most generous countries in the world in accepting refugees for permanent residency and citizenship. But this is no longer the case.

When it comes to actual resettlement, Canada admitted only 12,000 in total from all over the world in 2013. Opposition parties in Canada and groups like Amnesty International as well as the Canadian Council for Refugees have complained that Canada is not doing enough, especially for Syrian refugees. 

In the civil war in Syria more than one million of the refugees are children. How tragic! Something needs to be done urgently to help these young refugees.

Canada's Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander, has claimed that Canada is "at the top of the list"  in terms of welcoming Syrian refugees globally, although, thus far, the Canadian government has set a target of only 1,300 refugees, and is relying on private individuals to sponsor 1,100 of those. But the number of Syrian refugees who were actually admitted in 2013 was only a handful.

When pressed on the precise figure, the government has refused to answer. A reliable source uses the figure of only 10, which is not only shameful but it is also heartless and cruel. What sort of a government can do this to people?

In addition to government-assisted or privately sponsored refugees, there are thousands of individuals who come to Canada each year seeking asylum. While asylum claims in the EU and Australia have ballooned, in Canada these types of refugee claims actually dropped. 

According to government data, the total number of asylum seekers who entered Canada in 2013 dropped almost 50 per cent, from 2012, to only 10,000. The government attributes this to their pro-active measures to tackle the problem of fraudulent claims, but refugee advocates continue to call these measures unfair. 

Regardless of the government's measures to deal with what they regard as fraudulent asylum claims, Canada should be much more generous when it comes to refugees, in particular Syrians. It is to Canad's shame that one of the richest countries in the world is unwilling to do more to aid their plight. But so many other countries should also do much more.  The UNHCR report proves the necessity of this.

The prayer of the (Roman Catholic) Archdiocese of Toronto on World Refugee Day is surely appropriate. 


Thursday, June 19, 2014

The football god

I have an admission to make: football is my favorite sport. I have always enjoyed watching it ever since my student days in Europe. Today I am still enjoy watching it, especially this year when the 2014 FIFA World Cup is being played in Brazil. I have watched a few games of this tournament in their entirety, as well as snatches of a few others. Nothing can beat football, not even hockey, which is Canada's national sport. One thing that makes football so beautiful is that it only requires a ball to play -- no other equipment is needed.

By football, of course, I do not mean the American or Canadian varieties, which are different sports entirely, but what North Americans call soccer, and the rest of the world describes merely as "the beautiful game."

The love of football can be dangerous. Like all of created things, it can be used for good purposes or for bad; it can be a blessing or a curse. Sadly, it can even become a god, as happens too often today.

Although there is only one God, there are many gods today: money, power, sex, entertainment, and sports -- to name only a few of the more prominent ones. The football god is certainly the most important one for many people all over the world. More nations belong to FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) (209) than to the United Nations (193).

Diego Maradona, the great Argentinian footballer, expresses this idea aptly, "Football isn’t a game or a sport, it’s a religion." Since many religions have a god, it is not inappropriate to speak of a football god.

"Soccer isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism," concedes Franklin Foer, American author of the book, How Soccer Explains the World. He continues, "But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions."

Albert Camus, the French philosopher, claimed, "Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football." This helps explain why the idea of switching football clubs seems to many fans to be a form of idolatry, a worship of other gods. It seems that the football god has many guises.

Eric Cantona, the French footballer and occasional philosopher, has observed, “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion… but never, never, can you change your favorite football team.” Football is the greatest god of all, since it takes many different, local forms that demand faithful, obedient worship.

A poll in England confirms this. Three-quarters (74.9%) of football season-ticket holders would sooner change their religion than the team they follow, while only one in 10 (10.2%) feel the opposite. Even among less passionate fans, who attend only one or more games per season, well over half (55.6%) say they are more likely to change their religion than their team, while only 17.9% disagree.

How do football fans worship? Thousands of people congregate in large cathedral-like buildings. They sing songs and anthems, and unfurl banners. The actual worship begins as the players run onto the field of play at the start of the match. The great Scottish footballer, Bill Shankly, has said, "Some people think football's a matter of life and death. I can assure them it is much more serious than that." What a god they worship!

In addition to these cathedrals, or stadiums, as football fans call them, there is further evidence of worship of a divinity. Promising or proven managers are labelled "messiahs." Players become idolized and are referred to, not entirely ironically, as "God." But the same players who controversially sign for a rival club are literally branded as "Judas." Violence is yet another trait that football shares with at least some religions.

Once every four years the football world goes mad. When religion and nationalism are combined, the result is explosive. This year, with the World Cup being played in Brazil, these traits are not only more evident but they are intensified in what is arguably the most football-crazed country in the world.

Brazil has built seven new venues and renovated five others in twelve cities located in all the main regions of the country. The total cost to Brazil is estimated to be $14 billion, but much of this money could have been better spent on other, much more needed infrastructure projects.

The social cost has been enormous. A huge chunk of the budget has been used on building the stadiums -- at the cost of improved highways, subway systems, airports and ports. In addition, 30,000 families in Rio de Janeiro were reportedly forced to move for the games, and the overall number of displaced people country-wide is reported to be 170,000. The number of displaced people from what are often very poor areas of cities was enormous. There have been complaints as well over the compensation offered for people's homes, while many of the areas designated for relocation have been both distant and incomplete.

Both the financial and social costs indicate the priority of Brazil. It is a nation that worships at the feet of the football god. The country has spared no expense in order to impress the world with these stadiums. Moreover, it expects to win the World Cup. Anything less, would be regarded as failure.

If any further evidence for Brazilian football worship is needed, one need look no further than the devotion of most Brazilians offer to their local team. This apparently exceeds that of their devotion to their national team. Their love for their clubs is unconditional, enduring even great hardship. Fans will stick by their teams even more strongly when teams risk being relegated to the second division.

And if football is a religion to Brazilians, the Maracana is their favorite church. The famed stadium in Rio, which hosts the Cup championship match, is where many fanatics flock to on Sundays to worship their clubs at play. People claim that there is nothing like watching a match at a packed Maracana.

Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro

The football god is a false god that developed in Christian soil. In this respect, it is much like Marxism, which also makes great promises, but cannot deliver. One cannot disentangle football from the culture from which it emerged.

Perhaps the pervasiveness of the football god in Brazil should not be surprising. This is a country that is noted for its syncretism -- the ability to blend elements from various religions and create something new. The football god is an example. Many other countries have done the same.

Unfortunately, when this god fails to deliver, an entire nation will not only be disappointed but may despair and lose its faith, at least temporarily. Spain, the World Cup Champion in 2010, has already suffered this fate a this year's tournament. More nations will experience the same fate when the new champion is crowned.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the corruption associated with football, especially the FIFA World Cup. In every tournament there are charges about referees who favor a country for personal or financial reasons, because they were bribed. This year many expect the referees to favor Brazil, the expected winner. There is also controversy about how Qatar was awarded the World Cup tournament for 2022.

This year I am cheering for the Netherlands, the country where I was born. Although I now live in Canada, I am a dual citizen. I cannot cheer for Canada, since it failed to qualify among the 32 nations that are competing this time. I pray that the country of my birth will not be among the 31 nations that are doomed to fail in 2014. But I am afraid that many of these countries will blame the football god that so many worship.

It is just a game, after all. But what a game!

One of these countries will win the 2014 FIFA World Cup

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Piketty and inequality

God may have created us as equals, but soon we realize that we are not. Inequality confronts us everywhere in our genes, our gender, and -- most crucially today -- our wealth, because that is perhaps the most important  measure for many people. Now along comes a French economist, Thomas Piketty (pronounced: pick a TEA), who claims that this last inequality is getting worse in his newly published work, Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century.

Up until early this year, few people anywhere, even in France, had heard of Piketty, whose 927-page French version of his book came out in August 2013. The English edition, however, which appeared in March 2014, is only 577 pages, but it has already made him a celebrity everywhere. Amazon now lists it as the top-selling book, fiction included.

The title clearly alludes to Karl Marx's Das Kapital, which appeared in 1867 in German and was not translated into English for two decades, but took five years to sell the first 1000 copies in the original language.

Since I am not an economist. I have had to rely heavily on several articles the The Economist has written on Piketty and his theories on inequality. He uses many charts, many of which are not easy to understand.

Piketty, who is a pioneer in using tax statistics to measure inequality, painstakingly documents the evolution of income and wealth over the past 300 years, particularly in Europe and America. He shows that the period from about 1914 to the 1970s was an historical anomaly in which both income inequality and the stock of wealth relative to annual national income fell dramatically. Since then, however, both wealth and income gaps have been rising back towards their pre-20th-century norms.

Piketty’s has come up with a theory of capitalism that explains these facts, and offers a prediction of where wealth distribution is heading -- the wrong way. He claims that the free-market system has a natural tendency towards increasing the concentration of wealth, because the rate of return on property and investments has consistently been higher than the rate of economic growth.

Two world wars, the Great Depression and high taxes have pushed down the return on wealth in the 20th century, while rapid productivity and population rises have pushed up growth. Without these countervailing factors, however, higher returns on capital will concentrate wealth, especially when, as now, an ageing population means that growth should slow. The current recession is an additional factor that slows growth.

The surge in inequality has economists today wondering, as Karl Marx and David Ricardo did, which forces may stopping the fruits of capitalism from being more widely distributed. Inequality does not appear to ebb as economies mature nor does the share of income flowing to capital stay roughly constant over time.

Piketty argues that there is no reason to think that capitalism will “naturally” reverse rising inequality. There are too many factors that influence inequality and cause it to ebb and flow.

The centerpiece of Piketty’s analysis, as The Economist explains it, is the ratio of an economy’s capital or its wealth to its annual output. From 1700 until the first world war, the stock of wealth in Western Europe hovered at around 700% of national income. Over time the composition of wealth changed; agricultural land declined in importance while industrial capital --  factories, machinery and intellectual property -- gained prominence. Yet wealth held steady at a high level (see above chart, first panel).

Pre-1914 economies were very unequal. In 1910 the top 10% of European households controlled almost 90% of all wealth. The flow of rents and dividends from capital contributed to high inequality of income; the top 10% captured more than 45% of all income. Piketty’s work suggests there was little sign of any natural decline in inequality on the outbreak of the first world war.

The wars and depressions between 1914 and 1950 dragged the wealthy back to earth. Wars brought physical destruction of capital, nationalization, taxation and inflation, while the Great Depression destroyed fortunes through capital losses and bankruptcy. Yet capital has been rebuilt, and the owners of capital have prospered once more. From the 1970s the ratio of wealth to income has grown along with income inequality, and levels of wealth concentration are approaching those of the pre-war era.

Piketty describes these trends through what he calls two “fundamental laws of capitalism”. The first explains variations in capital’s share of income (as opposed to the share going to wages). The rate of return is the sum of all income flowing to capital -- rents, dividends and profits -- as a percentage of the value of all capital.

Piketty second law is that over long periods and under the right circumstances the stock of capital, as a percentage of national income, should approach the ratio of the national-savings rate to the economic growth rate. Whether this is a “law” or not, the important point is that a lower growth rate is conducive to higher concentrations of wealth.

You see now why I have relied on The Economist to explain Piketty's arguments, which involve a lot of economic jargon. I want to introduce Piketty to any readers who may be unfamiliar with his thought, yet I do not want to misrepresent him. 

His claim that inequality is increasing has profound implications today, even if not everyone is agreed with his premises nor his conclusions. Everyone does concede that Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century is an impressive piece of scholarship.

There has been a lot of criticism of Piketty. He has been criticized especially for his misuse of statistics and for his policy proposals. Space does not permit a detailed analysis of this criticism, but one example of each may be helpful in assessing Piketty's contribution to the inequality debate.

Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times, claims Piketty’s statistics on wealth distribution are undermined by a series of problems. Some numbers, he says, "appear simply to be constructed out of thin air.".He questions Piketty's use of his own sources. And he adds: "The conclusions of Capital in the Twenty-First Century do not appear to be backed by the book’s own sources."

The editors of The Economist conclude that while Piketty may be guilty of sloppiness in his use of statistics, his findings on the concentration of wealth has not been undermined: "He has pulled them together in what remains an impressive piece of scholarship.".

Piketty has provided a detailed response to the critique of Giles, but The Economist suspects that Giles will not be satisfied with the response, thus the discussion is likely to continue. But increasingly the battle seems to be one over methodological choices and data interpretation rather than major data errors or fabrications, as the initial FT work suggested.

In terms of policy proposals, Piketty has also been criticized for his prescription of a progressive global tax on capital, an annual levy that could start at 0.1% and hit a maximum of perhaps 10% on the largest fortunes. He also suggests a punitive 80% tax rate on incomes above $500,000 or so.

The Economist has dismissed this prescription as "socialist ideology" and his book as "a poor blueprint for action." Yet this conclusion is hardly surprising considering the liberal bias of that newspaper. Yet they have tried to provide a fair analysis of Piketty's ideas

What are we left with after the dust has settled? Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century is a fine piece of scholarship which, while not without its flaws, has effectively used statistics to bolster its claim about the increasing inequality in many parts of the world. Whether its prescription is feasible, is something that is not easy to decide.

Nevertheless, Piketty's warning is valid. If his premises are correct, after several decades of free market mania, the world is headed to superinequality, something that has possibly never been seen before. Increasingly, more and more wealth will be gained off the backs of the 99 percent, and less and less will be earned through hard work.

Is that what we want? Emphatically not!. But what can we do? First of all, I suggest that all those who are concerned about the growing inequality acquaint themselves with Piketty's magnum opus. I admit that I have not yet read the book, but I have tried to read as much as I could about it in order to learn more about the problem of inequality. Now, perhaps, I should put my money where my mouth is and buy this best-seller.