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New+Middle+EastThere are few people as well equipped to write an analytical summery of the current and, potential, future state of the Middle East than Paul Danahar.

Having spent the past 3 years running the BBC’s news coverage of the Arab Spring as Middle East Bureau Chief, he has a wealth of knowledge on this incredibly complex and volatile region and its politics. His personal journalistic exploits, throughout his career, allow him to pepper his commentary with anecdotes and snippets of conversations with experts and political leaders from around the world.

‘The New Middle East’ looks closely at the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria and explores their causes and consequences both as unique individual uprisings and as part of the Middle East as a whole. At the same time he takes the reader right back to the very roots of conflicts such as Isreal/Palestine, using history to shed light on the problems of today.

Danahar makes no assumptions about the reader’s pre-knowledge on Middle Eastern politics, history, international relations or Western foreign policy, nor does he complicate matters by trying to be too clever about it. He talks straight, explains clearly and provides balanced points of view from all sides.

Although the book’s main focus is on what the future holds for the Middle East and how this will affect the rest of the world, Danahar also provides insight into the political thinking of Western countries and how this affects their ability (or willingness) to intervene in Middle Eastern affairs.

The chapter on Syria makes for a particularly interesting read as America currently tries to decide on its next move with regards to the Assad regime and their chemical weapons. Ironically, at the time of Danahar’s writing, America showed no interest in taking a hands on approach to Syria and he chides their complacency. Perhaps this goes to show how quickly and dramatically things can change in war.

‘The New Middle East’ is an essential read for anyone looking to better understand the world issues that flash across our television screens on a nightly basis. It’s well rounded, comprehensive and brilliantly accessible.

‘The New Middle East’ is available in the UK from the 15th August 2013.

www.pauldanahar.com

Twitter: @pdanahar

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury, with special thanks to Laura Brooke.

 

Democracy Project’The Democracy Project’ by David Graeber provides a comprehensive look at the Occupy movement and the history of democracy as a whole.

It clarifies the somewhat hazy common perceptions of what the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon was really about. Not what the media said it was about, not even what the ‘not-your-usual-activist’ participant thought it was about, but the true agenda of those who started it.

The book starts out with some insightful and interesting comments about the current Western situation. Graeber highlights the vicious cycle of money and power that makes the rich richer and keeps the law on the side of big corporations. He makes poignant and well illustrated points about corruption, abuse of power, the economy, and society’s learned expectations and acceptance of all of these things.

He addresses issues that we, the ‘99%,’ need to speak out about to actively change… Aaaaaand then he makes the very unconvincing case that socialism and horizontal ‘direct democracy’ are the answers. Sigh.

For me, this is the point where this book stops being credible or interesting. It’s only in the final chapters that Graeber coyly whips off the cloth to reveal that all of these new radical ideas boil down to nothing more than repackaged communism.

Throughout the demonstrations no specific demands for change were actually made, on the principle that the current political system is so corrupt that engaging in it at all is to be a part of that corruption.

Graeber can say what he likes, but I’m extremely sceptical that the thousands of participating citizens that rallied together, forcing the authorities to take notice, intended to waste that opportunity to make a real difference. Especially not in the name of starting a new utopian society from scratch, rather than improving the existing one.

I feel cheated and so should all those people who joined the Occupy demonstrations thinking that they were campaigning for actionable solutions to these serious issues. I wonder how many of them even knew that at the heart of the movement were communist and anarchist ideals?

I digress, this review is about the book, not the misleading notion of the movement itself. I could sit here all day arguing why ‘egalitarian’ societies never stay egalitarian for very long but I’m sure you’re all perfectly capable of reading George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ for yourselves.

My main gripe is that there are two conflicting themes running throughout the book that are presumptuously treated as if they go hand in hand: The inclusive term ‘99%,’ uniting all citizens who want to make their lives and society better, and the insinuation that, as part of that wish, all citizens agree with communism.

Despite this, ‘The Democracy Project’ is an essential read for anyone interested in politics or sociology. Graeber takes the reader into the heart of the protests and tells some shocking tales of the, often illegal, police tactics used against activists as well as random acts of solidarity and kindness.

Even more valuable is his analysis of the various flaws in the current political system and contextualisation of this. Is communism the answer to all our problems? I personally don’t think so, but if nothing else this book questions Western societal norms that we all take for granted and ignites hope in the people’s power to initiate political change.

‘The Democracy Project’ was released in the UK on the 23rd April 2013.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Penguin, with special thanks to Mari Yamazaki.

Black Banners - coverAli Soufan is a former FBI special agent and renowned counter-terrorism interrogation expert. His book ‘The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda’ provides a chilling account of the fight against terrorism over the past 20 years, and is quite possibly the most essential read on the subject out there at the moment.

Soufan provides a look at the inner-workings of Al Queda including detailed information about individuals and the group’s structure. He discusses their ideologies, and explains how knowledge is the key to coercing Al Qaeda members into cooperating. Not water-boarding.

He takes us inside the interrogation rooms and provides first hand accounts of other borderline-torture interrogation techniques implemented by the CIA, which they later excused with false information about the results these techniques produced. Time and time again the distrust between the CIA and FBI is highlighted, leading to a series of missed opportunities and the failure to intercept terrorist plots such as 9/11.

Most shocking is the politicisation of national security by the Bush administration and the affect of this on the FBI’s work. Through Soufan’s account, the harsh and glaring light of truth is shone on scandals that, until recently, were hidden in the murky shadows of ‘classified information.’ An absolute must-read.

‘The Black Banners: inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda.’ was released in the UK on the 26th July 2012.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Penguin, with special thanks to Karen Browning.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is a thriving tourist destination attracting people from all over the world, but not all of its visitors are holiday makers. For years staggering numbers of migrants have been landing on its shores, having survived the treacherous boat journey from countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Their intended destination is mainland Europe: Their dreamland of opportunity.

A large proportion of the migrants come from Libya, trying to escape persecution or looking for work. Although the journey from Tripoli (in Libya) to Lampedusa takes approximately 16 hours by boat, bad weather and other unforeseen circumstances often result in it taking much longer. People regularly drown in shipwrecks or die of thirst along the way.

Having heard stories about the migrants and the poor conditions in which they were being kept when they arrived, photographer, Simone Perolari and his journalist friend decided to make the trip to Lampedusa in 2004. What they witnessed confirmed everything.

“We were led to the place where the boat arrived. It was being dragged by the border control officers. It was the beginning of a traumatic experience. Seeing all those people arriving, counting the men and women as if they were objects, helping women and babies. Everything left us in shock. On the first night the people were sent to a place called the ‘shelter’ (which had nothing of a shelter about it) and then they were left to themselves.”

Perolari is referring to the ‘Contrada Imbriacola’ initial reception and accommodation centre. It has since been criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for its inhumanely cramped conditions. In 2009 it was found that the centre, designed to house a maximum of 850 people, was actually housing approximately 2000 with many sleeping in make-shift tents outside.

“The lucky ones, in 2004, were sent to (mainland) Italy and then, according to the authorities, transferred to their country of origin” says Perolari. “It is clear that no one goes back though, they all become clandestine and outlaws. The unlucky ones were sent back right away, forced to reorganise a trip to Europe and relive this dangerous and life-threatening experience.”

That very year an agreement, that defied existing national and international laws, was made between the Italian and Libyan governments. It obliged Libya to accept deported African immigrants from Italy, despite lack of endorsement from the European Parliament. This led to an overwhelming number of deportations to Libya in 2004/2005 and denied many the right to apply for asylum (a violation of the Geneva Convention, signed by Italy.)

“This work, being the first important experience of this kind for me, was probably the most difficult. I couldn’t understand why the legitimate desire to achieve freedom and better living conditions resulted in men being treated like animals and risking their lives for nothing.”

Moved and troubled by the plight of the migrants, Perolari went on to photograph similar situations in other European countries in collaboration with Amnesty International. In 2009 he travelled to Patrasso in Spain, and in 2010 to Calais. He was also commissioned by Amnesty International to provide photographs for the ‘Invisibili’ campaign; an Italian and Belgian campaign aimed at raising awareness of the rights of undocumented minors in detention centres.

“After Lampedusa I went to Mellila, a Spanish enclave in Moroccan territory, where the situation was no better. That said, in 2005 the refugees were given maps and could at least enter and exit the refugee centre. Unlike Lampedusa, Melilla is not a tourist location, so they were given more freedom but still had no chance of reaching Europe.”

For many years in Lampedusa, the government had ensured that the ‘ugly’ issue of immigration was kept well away from the island locals and holiday-makers. Migrants were confined to the centre for weeks, before being transferred to other mainland centres. Perolari describes it as, “A real island prison where human rights are optional.”

In September 2011, a riot and arson attack at the centre resulted in 800 migrants escaping onto the streets of Lampedusa, where they were met with hatred and violence from police and fascist thugs. Shortly afterwards, almost all of the escapees were rounded up and deported and the centre was closed.

The closing of the centre meant that future migrants arriving by boat would have to face a significantly longer journey to the Sicilian harbour of Porto Empedocle, located an extra 200 kilometres away. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva criticised the closure, saying that the longer journey would cause an increase in migrant deaths. In 2011 alone, 1931 migrants are thought to have died whilst making the crossing.

It was around this time that Lampedusa had been experiencing an unsurprising surge in asylum seekers from Libya, following the outbreak of the NATO war against Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. The already stretched facilities on the island struggled to accommodate the hundreds of Libyans arriving on a weekly basis.

The centre finally reopened in July 2012 with a maximum capacity of only 350 places. Today its problems are even worse than before, with continuing high numbers of migrants, extreme overcrowding, and frustrated locals.

Lampedusa is only equipped to function as a stop-gap, where migrants stay for a maximum of a few days before being sent to mainland centres. Nevertheless, due to the continuing failure of the Italian government to put any regular transfer schedule in place, most are held for over a month. They sleep on the floor in crowded rooms where minors and adults are mixed, they receive little food, and only have access to extremely basic amenities. Unless the Italian government stops ignoring the issue, this inhumane treatment will continue indefinitely.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER.

Simone Perolari is an Italian photographer living in Paris, represented by the LUZ photography agency. His photo-project ‘unWelcome’ documents the struggles faced by migrants in immigration centres across Europe. To see more of his work visit www.simoneperolari.net

FIND OUT MORE.
www.migrantsicily.blogspot.co.uk/p/lampedusa.html
www.wsws.org

Written by Francesca Bassenger with many thanks to Simone Perolari.
Photographs © Simone Perolari.

The issue of gay rights is a hotly debated subject all over the world. Some cultures are more tolerant than others to homosexuality. In the majority of African countries, homosexuality is illegal, therefore punishable by law.

Recently officials of the Ugandan government announced that as a ‘Christmas gift’ to the Ugandan public, parliament would pass a bill that seeks to prohibit the promotion of gay rights and punishes anyone who funds, sponsors or abets homosexuality. This bill carries a series of jail terms for ‘convicted homosexuals’ including life imprisonment. Before it was amended due to international pressure, this bill sought to introduce the death penalty for certain homosexual acts.

Uganda is perceived to be one of the most homophobic countries in the world. Homosexuality is considered not only ‘deeply immoral’ but a ‘condition’ that needs to be eradicated through punishment, rehabilitation and prayer. In 2010, a Ugandan newspaper published the names and addresses of 100 gay individuals with a banner alongside them saying ‘Hang them’. This lead to multiple attacks and deaths of a number of the victims. In addition to the marginalization, discrimination, harassment, detention, attack and murder of gay individuals, there are reported cases of ‘correctional rape’ of lesbians.

The government claims that this bill is what most Ugandans want. The jury is out on whether this is a statistical fact or not. Even if this claim is shown to be true, the question of majority verses minority groups in situations where right and wrong are clearly a matter of opinion, exposes a major weakness of democracy. This is nothing new; history is littered with tales of minority groups rising against their oppressors. Not too long ago, the gay community was also marginalised in the western world. The question now is will Uganda (and Africa as a whole) follow the west into recognition and even integration of gay rights into society? Should Uganda follow?

Western countries, particularly America and Canada, are now seriously pushing for gay rights to be recognised in Uganda (or at least decriminalisation of homosexuality) by using economic threats such as withdrawal of aid. This has been perceived as move towards neo-colonialism and an attack on the sovereignty of Uganda. Ugandans refuse to be ‘bullied’ into accepting ‘western values’. This is not just a rejection of homosexuality in Ugandan society; it is a rejection of western influence and an expression of the right to self-determination.

Before steps can be taken to change anti-gay sentiments in Uganda, it is important to understand why there is such a profound disdain for the gay community in this country.

Homosexuality is considered by many Ugandans (and other Africans) as wholly ‘unafrican’ and an import from the western world. It has been speculated that the whole idea of homosexuality threatens the heterosexist social order which maintains the patriarchy that is characteristic of traditional African culture. Gay men are a lot more hated than gay women because being a gay man challenges the masculinity, therefore superiority, of men. It is an abomination.

These claims that homosexuality is a foreign concept to Uganda are false because the history books reveal several accounts of the existence of gay individuals in Ugandan history. One of the major kingdoms in Uganda had a famously gay King. Gay individuals have been in Africa a long time but they were neither persecuted nor promoted. The issue was not a debate. So what changed?

Not only are the current laws that criminalise homosexuality a remnant of British Colonial times in Uganda, it is mainly western-based religious views, particularly U.S. evangelical Christian views have been a major driver of this intense homophobia in Uganda.

Uganda is a deeply religious country with the majority of the population Christian (about 85%) or Muslim (about 12%). Religion dominates most aspects of life there, at least publicly. Almost all schools are affiliated with a religious institution, most healthcare facilities are linked to a religious institution and many forms of aid to needy communities are implemented through religious institutions at a grass-root level. As a result religious leaders wield great power both socially and politically.

A number of American evangelists including Scott Lively, author of ‘The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party’ have travelled to Uganda and held conferences maligning the gay community and accusing them of planning to replace the marriage based society with a culture of sexual promiscuity. Mr Lively was recently sued by a gay activist group called Sexual Minorities Uganda. This group maintains that Mr Lively, along with politicians and religious leaders in Uganda conspired to incite anti-gay hysteria by claiming that the gay community was seeking to sodomize children and corrupt Ugandan culture.

The Muslim community in Uganda is also quite vocal about its position against homosexuality. Many politicians and religious leaders in Uganda perpetuate the misconceptions that gay people are deeply immoral, sexual predators, defile children, recruit them into this ‘evil’ lifestyle and infect them with HIV. This propaganda is what exacerbates the hatred of gay individuals in Uganda and as long as these are the beliefs held by the Ugandan population, the battle for gay rights will be lost. It’s really a shame that these religious leaders are completely misrepresenting the religions they claim to uphold by promoting such intolerance and hatred.

Several observers have pointed out that it is highly likely that this great debate over gay rights is not just a matter of ‘morals’ but it is a political move orchestrated by politicians to reclaim a disillusioned public’s faith. Perhaps the government ‘s attempt at convince people that this bill is what they want, then passing the bill, is an elaborate ploy to convince the Ugandan people that their government does deliver. Frankly it would be more impressive if these very politicians could deliver on decent healthcare for the people of Uganda, or better roads, or better schools, or a reasonable pay rise for public service men and women instead of persecuting a minority group simply because they do not agree with their lifestyle choices.

Nevertheless, this renewed controversy has pushed a previously taboo topic into conversation. So far this has had a profoundly negative effect on the gay community. It is hard to tell whether these sentiments will change any time soon or even with time. It remains to be seen if the ‘Christmas gift’ will be delivered by the end of the year and what its true impact on international relations for Uganda will be.

Twitter: @IrrizleK

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi.
Photographs © and courtesy of Kaytee Riek

America. The land of the free… In the last century America has engraved itself so deeply in the global consciousness that it’s hard to miss its influence. With the American Presidential elections coming up the world watches in anticipation because, like it or not, what happens in America affects the rest of us.

America has had an intriguing relationship with the rest of the world politically, economically and socially. This great nation has power likened to previous superpowers like the Roman Empire and Great Britain (back in its heyday). But empires come and go, so it’s not unnatural to wonder whether America will suffer the same fate.

It’s hard to imagine a world where America is no longer the giant. Politically, it’s a force to be reckoned with. When you consider its influence in the United Nations, the major platform for international political and economic relationships, it’s easy to see why this is the case.

America holds a permanent seat on the Security Council of the UN. It also spends more money on its military than a number of governments have at their disposal. Not to mention the various alliances it’s made with other important players in world politics like the UK, France and Germany.

Countries that do not agree with, or even dare to oppose American policy, do it at their own peril. Presidents get ostracised (Paul Kagame, Robert Mugabe,) others get killed (Saddam Hussein.)

America’s made many enemies and has been involved in many high-profile wars over the years such as Vietnam, Japan, Afghanistan and Iraq. This has earned its respect, fear and derision from the world. It’s fair to say that during George Bush’s tenure as President, it was mostly derision, but now with Obama, the world is a lot less edgy about who America might attack next.

This country is famous for pushing its foreign policy agenda. No other country has its tentacles in as many political pots (so to speak) as America does. This is compounded by the substantive economic influence America has on the rest of the world.

This country practically invented foreign aid in the early-mid 20th century. Trillions of dollars later, many countries in the ‘developing’ world are more economically stable and forever indebted to America. Literally.

As much as America has helped these countries, what it requires (or demands) in return is often construed as classic manipulation. There are always strings attached. In fact, it’s gone as far as threatening withdrawal of aid unless policies and laws are introduced or removed by recipient countries. In the economic and political minds of many middle and low-income countries America is a pushy, preachy, self-righteous, arrogant and manipulative country.

Increasing numbers of African countries are now turning to Asia, particularly China, for economic and trade partnerships. Unlike America, China is not preachy and doesn’t really care about other countries’ political affairs (unless, of course it interferes with said trade.) What’s more, China does’nt care if you kiss its arse. China just wants a good business plan. Full stop.

In addition to this, emerging economies like Brazil and India are less dependent on foreign aid. As countries are becoming more economically independent, they are turning to eachother to do business. This has lead to the strengthening of regional economic structures that do not involve America and its allies, and that is bound to have an impact in coming years.

Furthermore, with America’s struggling economy, which has featured heavily in this year’s Presidential campaign, some parts of the world seems to be moving on quickly. Asia Pacific has now overtaken North America as the region with the most billionaires on earth.

Luckily, the biggest Advantage America has over its predecessors in world domination is social power. The American social ideology is its biggest international export. One word. Media.

The biggest factors here are Facebook, Twitter and Hollywood. As their T.V. shows and movies circulate all over the world, the American social construct is rapidly becoming the world’s social construct. America has shaped world opinions on everything from democracy, to gay rights, to romance, to Justin Beiber. The idea of the American dream has spilled over into the rest of the world and is now everyone’s dream.

A great deal of the reality of American life has been masked in movies, songs, ‘reality T.V’…so much so that people all over the world imagine an America that simply does not exist. But it is this glorified version of this great nation that draws people in. This is what keeps us interested, and as long as that interest is held, America will always be relevant.

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi.
Photography © Noel Y. Calingasan

 

Being from Brooklyn I have often been asked, with naïve curiosity, if I have “ever been shot at?” But with more and more news stories of shootings happening in America’s seemingly idyllic suburbs, I find myself holding my tongue from saying that I feel safer in New York City than out in the heartland of my country.

One of the more recent examples of this is the shooting of movie goers at a midnight screening of ’Dark Knight Rises’ in Aurora last month. It happened a mere ten miles from Columbine High School where thirteen years ago, twelve students and one teacher were murdered.

Since the Dark Knight shooting I have been in the presence of many who have simply asked, “What is wrong with Colorado?” That question, though rhetorical, is valid. Has the US become a place where going to school, shopping, or even the cinema means there’s a chance you’re putting yourself in the line of a bullet?

The right to bear arms is the second amendment of the United States’ Constitution, and is one of the hottest topics of this year’s election season. (Thankfully freedom of speech trumps its rank as the first amendment, though that is also up for debate… but that is a topic of another article altogether.)

The popular opinion is that carrying a concealed weapon can come in handy in many a situation. For example, had someone in that movie theatre been armed, they could have retaliated against the gunman, James Holmes, defending themselves and hundreds of others.

They would have also taken the risk of challenging an increasingly more agitated and violet assailant, creating more panic, killing dozens more in the crossfire, or turning themselves from ’victim’ to ’suspect’ in the eyes of the responding police.

Not to mention the fact that a study by the University of Pennsylvania states that gun carriers are 4.5 times more likely to get shot than citizens who are unarmed…

Despite this, Colorado saw a 43% increase in firearm sales in the following four days after the massacre: A clear example that the lax approach to gun control across the United States has created a country of paranoid, fearful, gun-totting citizens.

But with gun control laws differing state to state and family days at the shooting range common outings, the road to reform will be a long one.

Nevertheless, when in the midst of writing a piece on the gun control issue in the United States, and up pops a breaking news alert informing you of a shooting that has just occurred in a Wisconsin community, it certainly causes one to pause.

Written by Claire Matern. Photography © Peter Wallace.

Twitter: @ClaireMatern