NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: December 11

Fears of fascism as Israeli extremists prepare to take elections

Israel’s upcoming general elections early next year could see some of the country’s most extreme right-wing elements, accused of being racist by some, winning the elections.

Right-wing poster boy Benjamin Netanyahu, a former Israeli prime minister, and chairman of the right-wing party Likud, is battling even more extreme elements in his own party in a bid to become Israel’s next prime minister.

He will face off against Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the chairman of the more centrist and ruling party Kadima, to lead the country. Current opinion polls indicate Netanyahu to be in the lead.

Likud held its primaries on Monday to prepare a list of candidates for the Knesset (Israeli parliament) with those from the far right making a strong showing. [continued…]

The indispensable ally

The most important questions concerning the terrorist attacks in Mumbai are also obvious ones, yet are not asked nearly often enough by Western analysts. They are: What goals did the terrorists hope to achieve by these attacks? And how to what degree did they achieve them? Regrettably, the terrorists so far seem to have achieved at least a qualified success.

The first terrorist objective was clearly the direct human and physical damage caused, and the direct impact of this damage on India. From this point of view, most unfortunately, the terrorists have pulled off the greatest success in a single operation since 9/11, though less due to their own strength than the weakness of the Indian state. India has suffered a severe economic blow at a most inopportune moment, and the shortcomings of its security system have been cruelly revealed. In fact, its entire claim to be an aspiring great power has been called into question. It still seems extraordinary that a mere ten terrorists can have achieved so much.

The less obvious, but even more important terrorist objective was the effect of the operation on the behavior of India’s government. It seems clear that by far the single most important goal in this regard was to worsen relations between India and Pakistan, and wreck hopeful recent signs of reconciliation, like the speech of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in the week before the attacks dubbing the insurgents in Indian-controlled Kashmir “terrorists” and calling for economic union between India and Pakistan. Islamists in Pakistan have spoken and written openly of their desire to disrupt this reconciliation, and ideally to cause a new war between India and Pakistan.

The extremists’ interests in such a new conflict, or the threat of one, are threefold. In the first place, Pakistani tension with India tends to boost wider Islamist support, especially since India is now seen as a close ally of the United States. Secondly, tension with India tends to increase support for the extremists in the Pakistani security services. There may well also be a more immediate objective, which is to draw Pakistani troops away from the campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan along the western border with Afghanistan, by forcing the Pakistani military to concentrate troops for defence against the old eastern enemy, India.

So far, the terrorists have not succeeded in creating a new conflict; and they have suffered a serious blow with the Pakistani army’s attack on their main base in Pakistani Kashmir and arrest of their leader. However, in many respects India’s response to the attacks fell straight into the trap dug by the terrorists. Rather than stressing that India and Pakistan had been victims of the same kind of monstrous attacks on their international hotels (India at the Taj and Oberoi in December, Pakistan at the Marriott in September) and needed to work together, Indian rhetoric, official and still more private, made it sound as if the Indian government was blaming the Pakistani government itself for these attacks. [continued…]

Russia courts the Muslim world

Vladimir Putin was the first head of a non-Muslim majority state to speak at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a gathering of 57 Muslim states, in October 2003. That was a political and diplomatic feat, especially since Russia was waging a long-running war in Chechnya at the time. Putin stressed that 15% of the total population of the Russian Federation are Muslim (1), and that all the inhabitants of eight of its 21 autonomous republics are Muslim (2), and he won observer member status with the organisation, thanks to support from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Since then, Putin and other Russian leaders, including the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, claim that Russia “is, to some extent, a part of the Muslim world”. In an interview with Al Jazeera on 16 October 2003, Putin stressed that, unlike Muslims living in western Europe, those in Russia were indigenous and that Islam had been present on Russian territory long before Christianity (3). So Russia now claims to have a privileged political relationship with the Arab and Muslim world and believes that, as a mostly European state, it has a historic vocation as a mediator between the western and Muslim worlds.

There are reasons for these claims. The first is to counter the pernicious effect of the Chechnyan war, in Russia as much as in the rest of the world. The aim is to avoid, or at least limit, polarisation between Russia’s ethnic majority and its Muslims by reinforcing Muslims’ feeling of belonging to the state. “We must prevent Islamophobia,” said Putin in the Al Jazeera interview. That will be difficult given the way anyone suspected of being a Muslim fundamentalist is pursued, and not just in Chechnya. “Terrorism should not be identified with any one religion, culture or tradition,” Putin insisted. Before 9/11 he called Chechen rebels “Muslim fundamentalist terrorists”; now he speaks of “terrorists connected to international criminal networks and drug and arms traffickers”, avoiding any reference to Islam. [continued…]

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