Sunday, 20 June 2010

How lucky we are

On Wednesday when you sit down to watch the next England game - maybe in a panicked state considering the possibility of Fabio Capello's boys crashing out in spectacular style - spare a thought for the football fans of Somalia.

Since governmental collapse in 1991 much of troubled nation has been run by militant Islamic groups who force a particularly barbaric brand of Sharia law (utterly at odds with the beliefs of most Muslims) upon the unwilling Somali people. Firstly the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) rose to prominence, taking over vast swathes of territory. Then, when it was defeated by Ethiopian troops (with the support of US bombers) in 2006, it splintered into a range of equally brutal groups such as Hizbul-Islam and Al-Shabab (both of whom appear to have tacit links to Al-Qaeda).

Today the Islamists run Somalia South of the capital Mogadishu (which is tenuously controlled by the government backed up by African Union peacekeepers.) In these areas people are subjected to some of the worst human rights abuses in Africa; young girls are stoned to death for alleged adultery, students are targeted by bombers, opponents are beheaded in the streets, aid workers are slaughtered, the harrowing list goes on....

And those wanting to get away from the carnage by watching their continent's first ever World Cup have not been spared the brutality. Islamist groups, regarding the tournament as a 'distraction from jihad' have threatened to flog or execute anyone caught watching it. At least 10 people in Hizbul-Islam-controlled territory have already been arrested for doing so.

England might go out on Wednesday and football fans have every right to be upset if this happens. But all too often we in the democratic world take for granted the ability to watch a football match without the risk of being tortured or even killed.

Sometimes we forget how lucky we are.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Kyrgyzstan- the world must act

Two months ago I wrote about the crisis engulfing Kyrgyzstan; two days ago it took an appalling turn for the worse. The instability, poverty and desperation that has been steadily increasing since former-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted, exploded in ethnic violence across the South of Kyrgyzstan, where much of the countries large Uzbek community resides.

Uzbeks account for about 15% of Kyrgyzstan’s total population and there have been numerous incidents of ethnic tension over the years, often relating to housing and land. The recent break-down of order caused this to ignite with mobs of Kyrgyz attacking Uzbek citizens and ransacking their property. As of Sunday evening over 100 are dead and an estimated 30 000 have fled across the border into Uzbekistan with no food, water or shelter.

The world needs to act. This is a rapidly escalating humanitarian catastrophe that is costing lives on an hourly basis and the interim Kyrgyzstani government is not capable of stopping it. If that’s not bad enough the crisis has the potential to throw the whole of Central Asia into turmoil. Uzbekistan is ill-equipped to cope with such an influx of refugees; indeed, the dictatorship in charge of the country is so brutal and incompetent that it does not evenly adequately support Uzbeks already living there. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Uzbekistani military may cross the border in an attempt to stop the flow- thus triggering a war that will plunge this ill-fated region into even further poverty and misery.

The Kyrgyzstani government has already called on Russia to provide peacekeepers, but Moscow has refused. In some ways this may be positive; from Georgia to Moldova, Russia has used ‘peacekeepers’ to further its own political agenda rather than keep the peace, often to the detriment of the respective local population. It is perhaps a small blessing that Russia isn’t seizing the opportunity to cynically extend its political influence in Central Asia…but that won’t be any comfort to the Uzbeks being massacred by Kyrgyz mobs or the Kyrgyz being slaughtered in retaliatory attacks.

So the responsibility falls on the UN and on the democratic world; and the response has to be quick and effective. If the Security Council were to rapidly organise a peacekeeping force and offer it to the interim Kyrgyzstani government they would have little choice but to accept, even if they may prefer Russian-not Western- troops on their soil. Similarly if individual nations, or organisations such as NATO and the EU, were to readily offer up troops, this could provide a solution, at least in the short term.

In the meantime governments should be diverting emergency funds to help those flooding into the makeshift refugee camps in Uzbekistan, utilising diplomatic and NGO resources to ensure that aid reaches those who need it – rather than ending up in the pockets of Uzbekistan’s dictatorship.

On so many occasions our governments have shied away from the opportunity to conduct cooperative peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. We should rally together and ensure that this time they take it.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The rise of the EDL

When it was formed in June last year no one knew for sure what kind of an impact the English Defence League (EDL) would have. Whilst some optimistically dismissed the group as a poorly organised bunch of football hooligans, others warned that it was the beginning of a far-right ‘street army’ that would, in time, ignite racial violence across the country. Meanwhile the more conspiracy-theory-friendly commentators suggested that the whole group could be a ‘honey-trap’ set up by the police and secret services to indentify and monitor fascists (similar to the theories that once surrounded Combat 18).

Almost a year on we have a somewhat clearer picture. Recent media coverage- including excellent documentaries by the
Guardian and BBC, have shone the light on an organisation that – though nowhere near as significant Mosley’s Blackshirts or the National Front once were- is large, organised and growing. The uncertainty now is at what point support for the EDL will hit its peak – but unfortunately this does not seem to be in the foreseeable future. Each major EDL demonstration attracts more people than the last and they increasingly result in violence directed towards counter-demonstrators or the police.

The worse may be to come. There are growing rumours that this summer the EDL plans to ‘hit’ Bradford and Tower Hamlets; areas home to two of the UK’s largest Muslim communities and both the scenes of previous race-related violence. Set against the backdrop of the World Cup and booze fuelled nationalism, the potential for more violence is worrying. It would be na├»ve and dangerous to predict full scale race riots but the worse-case scenario of clashes and civil unrest cannot be ignored.

So what can be done?

We should begin by looking at the EDL’s aims and origins. Its official goal is to protest against radical Islam in the UK; but the group was not formed in the wake of 9/11, the Bali bombings, the Madrid bombings or even the London bombings. Rather, it was formed following
protests by a group of Islamic extremists at a homecoming parade for soldiers in Luton during March 2009. A rational-minded person may ask why those now involved in the EDL did nothing when British citizens were killed by radical Islamists on the streets of the capital but were up in arms about the supposed dangers of Islam five years later when a handful of men shouted abuse at soldiers.

The key – quite possibly – is in the economy: in 2005 the UK was not in recession, in 2009 it was. This meant that the ground was fertile for the kind of old-fashioned scape-goating that has been directed at ‘foreigners’ in countries across the world ever since economic problems and immigration existed. Of course, our politicians only added fuel to the fire. Instead of recognising the historic link between recessions and racism, then trying to prevent this by drawing attention to the benefits that immigration and multiculturalism have brought to the UK, they did precisely the opposite. In a desperate bid for votes they said things like “British jobs for British workers” before trying to ‘out-tough’ each other on anti-immigration measures. Essentially they set the scene for the militant racists – who were always lurking in the background- to recruit angry and disaffected people across the country with ease. The recent BBC documentary Young British and Angry supports this theory: the EDL members featured made as many references to ‘immigrants’ and ‘unemployment’ as they did to ‘bombers’ and ‘terrorists’.

In many ways it is too late for the government to back-track in this area and considering the coalition’s borderline racist immigration policy (which does nothing to dispel the ridiculous myth that immigrants steal jobs) any sudden u-turn to promote the benefits of immigration looks unlikely. But individual politicians –along with other senior public figures and journalists- should be doing everything possible to try and weaken EDL support by shifting public opinion away from the anti-immigration sentiment upon which its leaders play.

The government should also be engaging with Muslim communities and encouraging senior figures from them to speak out against militant Islam in order to challenge the EDL’s emphasis on the radical Islamists who in reality speak for barely any British Muslims.

Finally – if the Bradford and Tower Hamlets protests go ahead, enormous effort must be made to ensure that policing prevents, not fuels, violence. Tactics such as
kettling and the kind of excessive force that resulted in the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 must be avoided at all costs. The race riots of the 80s were exacerbated by irresponsible policing, turning protestors from both sides against officers. That cannot be allowed happen again.

Back in 2009 a police superintendent predicted that the UK would face a
summer of rage. Thankfully that never came to pass- but this year the EDL may look to make it a reality. It’s not to late to stop them.