ISIS Is The Child of Chaos, Not Religion

In the third week of May, ISIS took the city of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in two, big, high-profile victories. Though ISIS has constantly been in the news for years now, these two cities seem to return the sense of an unstoppable march of Islamist forces across the Middle East. As the beheadings began almost immediately in Ramadi, ISIS also bombed a mosque in Qatif, a Shia-majority city in Saudi Arabia during Friday prayers. Qatif, incidentally, is a place where Saudi armed forces and police have violated human rights with their usual impunity for years, detaining and even opening fire on protesters from the Shia community. From all of these reports, the sense given to readers is one of unstoppable momentum.

But as Ahmed Ali, in the NYT Opinion section on May 21 clarified, the situation is otherwise: “…the Islamic State is not on an unstoppable march. In Iraq, and to some extent Syria, it remains on the defensive. In April, the Islamic State’s defenses in large swaths of Salahuddin Province and the provincial capital, Tikrit, collapsed.”

So, ISIS has not had unstoppable momentum. After spending many months and many lives trying to take the Kurdish city of Kobani, Syria, they have been repeatedly repulsed since the beginning of 2015. Kurdish forces in Iraq have counterattacked them in Mosul and are keeping them under pressure there. And, although each time there is a battle in an Iraqi city, the Western media discuss the close proximity of that city to Baghdad, that does not mean that Baghdad is likely to fall to ISIS any time soon.

Syria, though, is another story. The stage in both countries is set not for ISIS victory, but for perpetual conflict.

Why leftists should read John Ralston Saul — critically

John Ralston Saul — author, president of the writers’ organization PEN International, and former vice-regal consort to former governor general Adrienne Clarkson — has had considerable influence in Canada and elsewhere. His unique style of writing can be recognized after just a few lines. He is hyper-educated, filling his work with references from the West in the 1600s to the present day, with the occasional leap back to the ancient Greeks or Romans. He takes a much broader historical sweep than almost any other writer who touches contemporary topics. [1]

Read any of his books, and you will come away with new stories: about a French resistance fighter during WWII named Jean Moulin, about a female contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi named Elizabeth of Hungary, about the 18th-century Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli. You can read about how ancient Greece's civilization began to flower because of the cancellation of debts by Athenian statesman Solon, or how the current period of globalization looks from New Zealand and Malaysia.

In a series of books about Canada, he has resurrected the history of responsible government and the political leaders Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, arguing they showed the world that you could “talk your way out of the Empire,” a method that was adopted by dozens of other countries after Canada showed the way.

JRS brings fascinating characters to life, as well as tragic statistics. From one of his books I found out that in some years Alberta brought in more money from gambling revenues than from tar sands royalties, so low were the royalty rates and so high was the stealth tax set up through promotion of gambling among society’s elderly and vulnerable. Elsewhere he describes how Canada entered a health care crisis not because single-tier public health care is unaffordable but because of a decision in the 1990s to lower the number of doctors available to the population.

We are all Farkhunda

On March 19, a 27-year old woman named Farkhunda was leaving the Shah-e Doshamshira mosque, the shrine of the King of Two Swords, in Kabul. The shrine is a place where people all over Kabul, and indeed Afghanistan, go to make wishes, to ask the saint, who is said to have brought Islam to Afghanistan, for favour.

Farkhunda was a religious studies student and taught at the mosque. She was there as part of a religious ritual common in Kabul (though not necessarily common elsewhere the Islamic world) where the mullah would sell charms, sometimes including bits of text from the Quran written on paper and folded tightly. People could take the charms for good luck, protection, or making a wish. Some say that she was upset because the charms had not worked for her. She may have told others to stop buying the charms - a source of business for the mullah and for men who hung around outside the shrine (1).

An argument started with the mullah. The mullah, rather than taking this up as a matter of discussion, decided to incite a crowd of men outside the mosque by telling them that Farkhunda burned the Quran. The crowd formed a mob, who killed Farkhunda horribly over a period of minutes, in a scene captured on numerous cell phone video cameras and uploaded to the web. Police were on the scene - the shrine is a site of importance in Kabul - and did not intervene to save her.

Up to this point, the story is one of religious conservatism, misogyny, mob hatred, incitement, police inaction, and it might be explained away as an eternal problem of Islam, or of Afghanistan, or both.

But the popular reaction to Farkhunda's murder does not fit into these frames. Instead, what occurred was a sustained mobilization exponentially larger and more powerful than the gang of misogynists who murdered her.

It was quickly explained by her family and widely understood after her murder that Farkhunda was religious and would never have burned the Quran. But, while many protesters chanted slogans about Farkhunda's innocence, others were saying things like "so what if she burned the Quran?" And while there were those who tried to protect the mullah and the killers, the movement was using the cell phone videos and social media to track down each of the people in the mob who played a role in her death.

What should the West do about dictatorships? Profit from them, of course.

In 2008, a Libyan graduate student at the Arab Academy for Maritime Transport was arrested, deported, blacklisted, and banned from Egypt on suspicion of "homosexual practices". On April 14, 2015, an Egyptian court upheld the decision, preventing him from re-entering, on grounds of protecting the public morality (1). Last December, a TV presenter named Mona al-Iraqi led a televised raid on a bathhouse in Cairo, which led to mass arrests, "compulsory medical examinations", and prison sentences.

On April 16, 2015, Egyptian-Canadian Khaled al-Qazzaz, who was an advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohammed Morsi, was at the Cairo airport with his family, having been released after nearly two years in an Egyptian jail, awaiting deportation on medical grounds. They had been promised that Khaled had been cleared of all accusations, was not under investigation, and they could leave the country - Khaled, who had been in jail since 2013, and his wife and children, who had come from Canada to get him. They were detained at the airport for seven hours, their passports confiscated, and left the airport with no information (2).

On April 11, Egypt's famous "hanging judge", Nagy Shehata, sentenced 14 Muslim Brotherhood members to death, and 36 others to life in prison, including US-Canadian citizen Mohammed Sultan (3). Shehata is quite a countenance, pictured always in sunglasses. Human rights researcher Priyanka Motaparthy summarized Shehata's methods in a tweet (4) "#Egypt judge Shehata sentenced 204 people to death & 534 ppl to 7395 years in prison in just 5 rulings. Probably w/o removing his sunglasses."

Back in February, Egypt's president Sisi gave an interview to Der Spiegel, which provides insight into his mind (5). Given that power in Egypt is concentrated in Sisi's hands, his beliefs have consequences. This exchange, in which Sisi explains his massacre of hundreds people in terms of a "civilizational gap" is remarkable:

SPIEGEL: What happened on Rabaa Square was a massacre in which at least 650 Morsi supporters were killed by security forces. Those events represent an abuse of power.

The Filimbi Affair and #Telema

In January of this year, protests erupted in Kinshasa, the capital of the DR Congo, against President Joseph Kabila. He came to power in 2001 as acting president when his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated. He was affirmed as president by a 2002 peace accord, and he was elected in what was probably a fair election in 2006. He was re-elected in what was probably a stolen election in 2011. His second, and final, term is up in 2016. The protests, called the #Telema (the word means "rise up" in Lingala - the language spoken in the capital and elsewhere in the DR Congo) movement, followed the announcement by Kabila's government of a proposed law that would delay the 2016 election until a census could be completed. In the DRC, a census could take years, a fact that Kabila was no doubt aware of when the law was proposed.

The protests were started at the University of Kinshasa and the initial demand was for the removal of the offending article of the law that required the census before the election. But over the next few days in January, the demands started to escalate to the removal of Kabila. The armed forces attacked the protesters, with tear gas and live fire (1). An African human rights group gave figures of 14 people killed on the 19th and 28 on the 20th, all by security forces, while the government claimed a lower death toll of 15 people, supposedly looters killed by private security forces (2). Human Rights Watch gave an estimate of at least 21 people killed by security forces (3).

With 42 student protesters killed, ongoing arrests, and a mass grave found in Kinshasa just days ago, the DRC has its own Ayotzinapa.

In the years leading up to these protests, Kinshasa has been the site of a police campaign of social cleansing that left 51 people dead, murdered by masked police on suspicion of being "gang members" in what was called "Operation Likofi" (4). According to HRW's summary of the operation, "uniformed police, often wearing masks, dragged kuluna, or suspected gang members, from their homes at night and executed them. The police shot and killed the unarmed young men and boys outside their homes, in the open markets where they slept or worked, and in nearby fields or empty lots. Many others were taken without warrants to unknown locations and forcibly disappeared."

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The North American, All-Administrative University

In his 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, gives an explicit institutional analysis that explains what many faculty in North America have been feeling intuitively as their institutions have changed around them. The main change in universities in recent decades, Ginsberg argues, has been the rise of administrators at the expense of the core activities of the university - research and teaching. It matters, he argues, because administrators and professors have different world views. To professors, the university is a means to certain ends, all having to do with knowledge: the creation of it, the development of it, and the sharing of it. To administrators, teaching and research are means to the institution's ends. They are business lines, which an institution can take or leave, depending on what suits the current institutional goals (profit, or simply the expansion and growth of the administrative part of the institution). In an administrative world view, then, closing down an english department or a math department and allocating those resources to a parking lot is a perfectly rational thing to do.

The tone of Ginsberg's book is refreshing, and I suspect very deliberately irreverent. Power in an institution depends on maintaining a mystique of insiders who attend exclusive meetings (retreats, seminars, etc.), who are aware of insider language (including particular fads and acronyms), and hierarchies of titles and authority. Ginsberg describes the administration as 'deanlets', and pokes fun at their principal activities, including the production of strategic plans, media relations to maintain an institution's image, travel to seminars and workshops to meet other administrators in person (even if the topics of these workshops is the irrelevance of in-person instruction in the face of e-learning), and of course, the cultivation of relationships with wealthy donors.

The Tuition Trap, as discussed by Christopher Newfield

I've been thinking about Chris Newfield's 2008 book Unmaking the Public University a lot lately, and I wanted to reproduce one great quote from page 182, about what he calls "the tuition trap": how by raising tuition fees, public universities undermine the case for public funding for universities, which shortfall they make up by raising tuition, undermining the case for public funding...:

"The tuition trap goes like this: The public is worried about college affordability, but its public university raises its fees. The university thus implies it does not actually depend on public funding, since it has the private resource of higher tuition at its fingertips. The university may also deepen this impression - that it can do without more public funding - by saying how good it is in spite of public funding cuts. Even worse, it may declare strong public funding a thing of the past in order to justify tuition increases or expanded fund-raising. Taxpayers then reasonably ask, if the university does not need more money, why does it keep raising fees? And since it keeps raising fees, why should we give it more public money?"

He goes on:

"If the university is just another cog in an economic system that is about getting ahead, charging as much as you can, maximizing your returns, and buying your way to the top, why should the general public pay for it?"

Both quotes from pg. 182.

Universities could be very valuable, making huge contributions to the general development of society and accessible to all. For that to happen, public universities have to get out of the tuition trap.

York strikers show the way — now let’s build a truly public university

Protracted labour dispute raises questions of post-secondary governance and funding

The strikes at York University, the University of Toronto, and elsewhere have opened a long overdue debate about student debt, precarious labour in the academy, rising tuition, and, to a lesser extent, university governance. The York University strike offers an opportunity to argue for the continuing relevance of universities as public institutions. The importance of the public in the public university is especially true for York, which, if it embraced its role as such, could tackle a new list of issues and lead the way for other educational institutions.
Precarity, debt, and defensive struggle

York's contract faculty are the precarious academic labourers whose difficulties have been brought into some public light by the York strike and other labour actions in North America. The contract faculty settled earlier in March. The teaching assistants and graduate assistants had to battle on until the end of the month to win their objectives.

Although the strike ended in a victory, the struggle was mainly defensive. In previous contracts, the union on strike at York, CUPE 3903, won a funding package that includes work as a TA (or, for work outside the classroom, as a GA). The total package offered to a student is usually in the range of $12,000 to $18,000 for the year. Out of this, a domestic student has to pay around $6,500 tuition. International students might get the same package, but their tuition is much higher — somewhere around the size of their whole funding package.

Students are eligible for such funding only if they have full-time status. If they work more than 10 hours per week outside of their studies and on-campus jobs as TAs or GAs, they are ineligible. So, when the administration presented the claim that TAs were getting paid $52/hour, they neglected to add that this was up to a hard limit of about $9,000 for a year. In order to get this $52/hour, students had to figure out how to live on about $30/day (or, for international students, $0/day). Of course, students could take on additional debt, the implicit solution that university administrations continuously try to impose on students.

The union did not go on strike trying to get its members out of this low-wage situation. The union went on strike because management was trying to assert its right to raise tuition while maintaining the funding package at the same rate.

Cease Fire, Resume Genocide: An Interview with Dr. Jacob Smith*

Dr. Jacob Smith (name changed) is a North American physician who has visited Gaza several times, working at several hospitals there in both clinical and training roles. I spoke with him about the medical system in Gaza and the state of Gaza under the current, post August-2014 intensified siege.

Justin Podur: Describe your work in Gaza's medical system.

Jacob Smith: I was initially asked several years ago by the Ministry of Health in Gaza to participate in a needs assessment for one of the subspecialties. At the time I knew very little about Gaza, wasn't involved in politics, and knew very little even about the history of the region. As a physician what I saw was a tremendously poor humanitarian situation that was in large part man-made. Most times humanitarian crises result from earthquakes, tornadoes, natural disasters. This disaster is entirely man-made. The health system is the area I'm exposed to most. But it's one small nidus of a multifactorial problem. The health system needs work, but so does the water system, so does rebuilding people's homes, there are huge needs in every area. Politically, the most important thing would be getting the borders open so people can export and import - these are simple things that people in a Western society simply take for granted. The blockade prevents medical supplies, medications, training of doctors. The actualization of an independent, sovereign people requires that they can interact with other people. To be able to be empowered to overcome poverty and other challenges, is really not something that they can do under blockade.

JP: Give us some examples of how the siege plays out in the medical system.

Online Privacy Is Worth The Extra Work

This past week, Laura Poitras's documentary, Citizen Four, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. When he provided the documents that revealed the details of universal spying by the US National Security Agency (NSA), the subject of the documentary, Edward Snowden, wrote an accompanying manifesto. His "sole motive", he wrote, was "to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them. The U.S. government, in conspiracy with client states, chiefest among them the Five Eyes - the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand - have inflicted upon the world a system of secret, pervasive surveillance from which there is no refuge." (1)

Snowden, who made careful plans to try to avoid capture before he could get the materials out, nonetheless assumed that he was going to be spending the rest of his life in prison. Even though his greatest wish was for the public to know about the surveillance programs, he was pessimistic about the possibility that the programs would be reformed through the existing political system. His manifesto concluded with the repurposing of a quote from Thomas Jefferson about the U.S. Constitution: "Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography."

In other words, maybe if the public found out, they would find the idea of being surveilled by unaccountable powers unappealing, or maybe they would not. If they rejected universal surveillance, they might demand that the program end. But maybe the political system was in fact so closed, undemocratic, and unresponsive that it could not change in response to such a demand. But even then, the public had options: the public could change their behaviour in order to make universal surveillance more difficult. How? What are these "chains of cryptography" to which Snowden referred?

In a lecture at the 31c3 conference late last year (2), Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras showed the systems that the NSA have so far been unable to crack. Taken together, and used carefully, these systems offer the continued possibility of privacy, a fundamental right, a right which enables people to form their personalities, their philosophies, and their politics, a right which has been taken away by spy agencies for their own grandiose plans.