Richard Howitt is one of the most long-standing Labour members of the European Parliament, representing the East of England. As he himself pointed out at a lunchtime briefing for members of the Association of European Journalists (UK Section) at Europe House in Westminster today, that region is best known for its high percentage of UKIP supporters. Some of those can apparently be pretty thuggish; Richard Howitt was literally stoned during the Clacton by-election. However, in the Parliament his main work is on the Foreign Affairs Committee and he is enthusiastic about the (still relatively new) Commissioner for External Relations, Federica Mogherini. He is less impressed by the way that Britain’s Conservative government is handling matters European. I raised the issue of refugees from Syria, whose numbers now exceed 4 million. Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have been shouldering an unfair share of the burden of looking after them and I for one was disappointed that EU member states failed to step up to the plate when the issue of possible quotas was raised at the Riga Summit. Richard Howitt clearly understands the demographic challenges that the UK faces unless it keeps an open door to EU migrants — which is a major reason he supports Turkish membership of the Union. Domestically, he party has hardened its stance on migration and immigration, but not for the first time the Labour MEPs have proved more liberal than their national counterparts, who still nervously guard their backs.
Posts Tagged ‘Syria’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th July, 2015
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th May, 2015
The self-styled Islamic State shot to global prominence largely by its highly effective use of social media and video streaming to trumpet its egregious human riots abuses in Iraq, Syria and Libya, from the graphic beheadings of “unbelievers” and aid workers to the sale and rape of female slaves and pushing homosexuals off the top of high buildings. Until now, not much attention has been given to the ways that IS exploited social media platforms, but that lacuna has been admirably filled by Abdel Bari Atwan’s new book Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Saqi Books, £16.99). A veteran writer, broadcaster and editor on the Middle East, the author makes good use of his contacts both within territory controlled by IS and those outside. He understands why thousands of disaffected young Muslims (including converts) from around the world have rallied to the black IS flag, inspired by the notion of a new Islamic Caliphate. He analyses well the origins of IS ideology in the Wahhabi school of thought that developed in what is now Saudi Arabia in the late eighteenth century. He also, correctly, lays much of the blame for the spread of salafist extremism at the door of the Saudis, who have spent billions exporting their narrow prejudices. But in a sobering conclusion, Abdel Bari Atwan warns that IS extremism is likely to blow up in Saudi Arabia’s face one day. Just as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida condemned the Saudi Royal family for its decadence and departure from the “true” path of Islam so Islamic State has the House do Saud in its sites. It is only a matter of time. And if Saudi blows, the aftermath will be felt globally. So, among all the confetti of recent publications on Islamic State choose this one, to be informed, even enlightened, but also alarmed.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th February, 2015
Kurds from all over Europe — including many who had matched long distances — converged in Strasbourg today to mark the handover to the Council of Europe of a petition signed by more than 10 million people calling for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the banned PKK, who has been in prison on an island in Turkey since his capture and rendition by the CIA in Kenya. The PKK figures on the list of terrorist organisations in several European countries, but many Kurds believe that is unjust. Though there was a bloody war between Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces for decades, the AK Party government that has been in power in Ankara for over a decade has conducted a stop-start peace process with the Kurds, granting certain cultural rights after long years of oppression. But some of the international speakers who were present at a press conference this morning to highlight the petition handover argue that just as the release of Nelson Mandela was an essential element in the move towards reconciliation and more racial justice in South Africa so the release of Abdullah Ocalan is a prerequisite to a permanent settlement of Turkey’s question. It was pointed out that PKK fighters fought alongside Peshmerga forces in liberating the town of Kobane in the Kurdish area of Syria recently, scoring an important victory over Islamic State, which maybe might help a review of how the PKK is viewed. As someone who lived through the years in Britain when IRA bombs were a feature I know how important it was for the British and Irish governments to talk to former terrorists in order to make the Good Friday Agreement a reality. As has often been said, one does not make peace with one’s friends. And if there is going to be a Kurdish settlement in Turkey it seems crucial to me that Abdullah Ocalan should be a full party to the negotiations, however difficult some Turks might find that to stomach.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd December, 2014
As hundreds of millions of people around the world prepare to celebrate Christmas, spare more than a thought for the Christians of the Middle East, for many of whom 2014 has been a dire year. Two of the most vibrant Christian communities, in Iraq and Syria, have been traumatised by violent conflict, dispossession and displacement. And in Israel/Palestine, the fount of the faith, Christians are feeling under ever greater pressure to leave. The brutal Israeli onslaught on Gaza may be over, but its effects are still there, and in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem Christians and Muslims alike continue to suffer from the excesses of the occupying forces and the more extreme fringe of Israeli “settlers”. The symbolic confrontation between Palestinians dressed as Santa Claus and IDF soldiers has become almost ritualistic, but there is nothing joyful in the real gulf that still separates the people in the Holy Land. The rise of ISIS has undoubtedly made things worse across the Middle East and North Africa as a whole, but no one actor in the region’s turmoil is to blame alone. If Christians are to have a future in the Middle East, as they should, along with the other two Abrahamic faiths, then there needs to be a massive change of heart among political and religious leaders, as well as ordinary people, and an acknowledgement that what unites us all should be much stronger than that which divides.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th December, 2014
Over the last three decades, much of the world, from Brazil to Indonesia, has moved from dictatorship to democracy, but despite the so-called Arab Spring that began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010, most of the Arab world has remained immune. Several states, such as Syria and Bahrain, are even worse than they were when it comes to the situation of civil society and human rights. Especially tragic is the most populous Arab state of all, Egypt, which was so full of hope during the 2011 Revolution, but where things have returned to their previous brutal state following the coupl against Mohammed Morsi in July last year. As the United States and several other western countries view Egypt as a crucial ally they have been restrained in their criticism of some of the gross outrages that have taken place in Egypt over the past 18 months, so it has been left to NGOs and some of the international media — notably Al Jazeera — to make their concerns known. Prominent among the former has been the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights (ICFR), which has sent everal missions comprised largely of lawyers to Cairo during 2014. Egypt has similarly been the Central focus of ICFR’s first conference this week in Istanbul, which I have been attending and which will lead to the creation of a lawyers’ task force to monitor situations and to disseminate information, as well as a media group. While so much of the West is concentrating on the War on Terror it probably needs reminding about the values it is meant to stand for, including democracy and the respect for human rights, which are alas so lacking in so many Arab States.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd November, 2014
Through the eyes of the Western media what appears to be a black-and-white situation has developed in the Middle East: the wicked self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) versus the rest, including the international coalition of which Britain is part. But of course the reality is nowhere near as clear-cut as that, and some of ISIS’s enemies should not be our friends — Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, for example. So it was helpful, as well as moving, to be at the BBC Radio Theatre in London yesterday afternoon for a screening of three documentaries from Syria, the first and longest of which was The Shebabs of Yarmouk, directed by Axel Salvatori-Sinz, focussing on a group of young creative artists/writers/directors living in the crowded Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus — their hopes and fears and their ambivalent attitude to the possibility of leaving Syria. The film ends just as the so-called Arab Spring hits Syria in early 2011. The handsome and talented central, figure, Hassan Hassan, has finally accepted to do his military service, but as we learn from a very short but poignant postscript filmed separately by Axel Salvatori-Sinz in Paris, Hassan was subsequently detained and died under torture in one of Assad’s hell-hole prisons. Dissent is simply not tolerated by the regime. And yet thousands of predominantly young Syrians, with no affiliation to ISIS or indeed any of the other radical groups to be found fighting the country, continue to make their dissenting voices heard, through clips uploaded onto YouTube, and through social media postings, as well as brave demonstrations, singly or in groups. Many others have perished or been forced into exile, or at best internally displaced. For those of outside who follow the Syrian story at a distance through the mainstream media, it is important to acknowledge those different voices and diverse points of view. This is not a black-and-white situation, and we demean the people of Syria by assuming it is.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Arab Spring, Axel Salvatori-Sinz, Bashar Al-Assad, Damascus, Hassan Hassan, ISIS, Islamic State, Palestine, Syria, The Shebabs of Yarmouk, Yarmouk | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th August, 2014
I have not watched the video of American journalist James Foley being beheaded by a militant from the so-called Islamic State, IS (previously known as ISIS). I don’t need to, in order to share the revulsion and anger felt by most people in Britain, especially as the masked “executioner” in the video would appear to be British, from his accent. Foley was a war correspondent, not a soldier, who had been held in captivity for the past two years before his gruesome death. His only “crime”, in the eyes of his captors, was his nationality, but nothing can possibly excuse his death and the manner of it. It comes hard on the heels of horrific stories of mass executions by IS of Yazidis and other civilians in Iraq and the terrorising of populations. I am not a Muslim, but I have studied enough about the religion over the years to know that this barbarity is as remote from the true teaching of Islam as was the Spanish Inquisition from that of Christianity. There is nothing noble or heroic in the action of IS militants, nor the cause they espouse. The Islamic State is pure evil, and must be condemned as such, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. That means not only action on the ground in Syria and Iraq — which is already seeing some unusual alliances forming against IS — but especially in the mosques and madrasas, and through social media, where the poisonous message of IS must be challenged and exposed for what it truly is.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 5th July, 2014
Earlier this week I was at Mosaic Rooms in Kensington, interviewing the writer and Arabist John McHugo about his new book on Syria. The topicality of the subject was doubtless one reason that the place was packed — and both John and his publishers, Saqi Books, deserve praise for turning the book round so quickly but professionally, so that it can become part of the national debate on Syria. John and I first met over 40 years ago, in the coffee room of the Oriental Institute at Oxford, though at that time I was studying Chinese with Japanese, while John was already grounded in Arab studies. This helped him greatly in the preparation of his last book, A Concise History of the Arabs (brought out by Saqi last year), but marrying Diana Darke, the author of My House in Damascus, which I reviewed earlier this year, certainly cemented his involvement in Syria in particular. His new book, Syria: From the Great War to Civil War (Saqi, £17.99), really brings alive the trials and tribulations — as well as some periods of relative calm — of the people of Syria over the past century. I was particularly interested in John’s treatment of the French Mandate period, which gets scan coverage in most English-language texts about the 20th century Middle East. He was able to draw on Patrick Seale’s magisterial biography of Hafez al-Assad to help portray the rise to power and its exercise by that remarkable man, who had a very clear vision for the role and future of his country, and was prepared to liquidate anyone who fundamentally disagreed. When the old man died and his second son, Bashar, took over, there was a false sense of reasssurance in many Western capitals, that this partly English-educated newcomer with his medical background would usher in a glorious period of reform — not that the presidential circle and narrow base of vested interests would ever have allowed him to be too radical in challenging the system of patronage from which they benefitted so handsomely. By chance, John and I were both in Syria — he in Damascus, me in Tartus — when the waves of the so-called Arab Spring finally reached Syria in March 2011. Had the authorities handled things differently then, instead of relying on oppression, things might have developed quite differently. Inevitably, in the question and answers at the Mosaic Rooms event, John got asked about what is happening now in what to an extent has become a proxy war, with different foreign powers and even religious ideologies lining up on one side or another. But I am sure he was right when he said that sectarianism between Sunni and Shia was not such big issues for most of the period covered by his book, though now it is seen as defining the struggle that has so far cost over 150,000 lives.
[photo: Susannah Tarbush]
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th April, 2014
Diana Darke is one of those splendid British Arabists, in the tradition of Gertrude Bell, who combines a passion for Syria and the rest of the Middle East with an admirably Anglo-Saxon cool head, which has enabled her to work for many years as a translator, consultant and writer of Bradt travel guides on the region. Unlike Ms Bell, however, she is not al-Khatun, a Lady of the Court, with one dog-like ear and eye open to pick up on anything that could be of use to the powers that be — despite at one stage in her life being a diplomatic wife. Indeed, it is hard to imagine her hand-in-hand with either William Hague or the family and entourage of President Bashar al-Assad, who is hanging on in there in Damascus while his country proceeds fast down the road to perdition. Such was Diana Darke’s enchantment with the old walled city of Damascus that she day-dreamed of owning one of the Ottoman courtyard houses in its heart, and once that idea had been seeded, it germinated and led to her acquiring Bait Baroudi, and then embarking on a painstaking process of restoration, not to make something pristine and thus suitable for a high-end boutique hotel, but rather as a place of beauty that would wear its heritage with subtle pride, with the aid of some fine pieces of antique stone and artefacts picked up on expeditions round the sellers of the banished contents of disintegrating ancestral homes. Having created this oasis of tranquility — sometimes generously lent out to travelling friends — she then thought of writing a book about the house and its project, but events overtook her. From the moment some teenage idealists in the town of Dera’a wrote anti-government slogans on walls in March 2011, unleashing a crackdown, Syria entered the vortex of the most vicious and unpredictable of all the so-called Arab spring revolutions. 140,000+ dead later, not to mention the millions of refugees and internally displaced, the situation seems as intractable as ever. Diana Darke can no longer visit Syria to spend time in her Arab home, but it now houses its own band of around 30 refugees, including some of those people who had worked with her on the house. So the book she originally envisaged became unviable, unpublishable even, in the current gloomy political climate. And so it transmuted into a really very special volume, My House in Damascus (Haus Publishing, £14.99), which weaves an enchanting tapestry not just of Bait Baroudi, but of Damascus and Greater Syria, drawing on the author’s own youthful studies of Arabic at the old MECAS institute at Shemlan in Lebanon, cleverly threading the weft of her personal story through the warp of Arab culture, past and present, skilfully moving back and forth between the years without losing the reader on the way. The result is a gem that will delight those already familiar with Damascus and be a revelation to those who aren’t. But I suspect all will finish reading it with a sense of deep sadness for the way Syria is being torn apart. Diana Darke determinedly hopes that one day, somehow, it will all turn out all right, and that it will be possible to walk across the hills of the Levant, carefree, before returning home to the gentle charm of Bait Baroudi. I wish I could sincerely believe that she is right.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bashar Al-Assad, Bradt travel guides, Damascus, Diana Darke, Gertrude Bell, Haus Publishing, Lebanon, MECAS, My House in Damascus, Shemlan, Syria, William Hague | 2 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd March, 2014
This afternoon I stood in bright sunshine on a stage in London’s Finsbury Park, speaking to a crowd of several thousand Kurds, to mark the festival of Newroz. In traditional Kurdish villages, people would jump over a fire at Newroz, but as I said in my speech, although there was no fire in front of me I could feel the fire in the people before me. They are right to be proud of their long history, culture and language, and to struggle for greater rights in the Middle East. In recent years I have been to Amed (Diyarbakir) and surrounding districts in predominantly Kurdiah areas of south-eastern Turkey, monitoring elections, though I won’t be able to go to cover the local elections in Turkey next month as I’m staying in London to campaign for the European elections. I said to the crowd it is important that they — if they have British or other European Union passports — vote on 22 May for a party that supports the rights of minority peoples and is committed to Britain remaining in the EU, or otherwise urge their neighbours and friends to do so. Apart from Sarah Ludford MEP (who also has a longstanding interest in Kurdish issues) and myself, on the LibDem list for London we also have a Turkish Kurd, Turhan Ozen. The situation in Turkey is frustrating in that Recep Tayyip Erdogan made some significant moves towards recognising Kurdish rights but like so much of his policy, this has often been a situation of one step forward, one step back. In Syrian Rojava the situation is critical for many Kurds and in Iran several Kurdish leaders have recently been executed or harassed. Only in the Kurdish region of Iraq (KRG) — which I visited this time last year — is the situation markedly better. So Kurds have a lot to struggle for. But as I concluded in my short speech, today is a day for celebration. Newroz Piroj Be!