The Afghans are Coming!

There’s a phrase that keeps popping up in discussions of Syria. It’s a string of words that always appear together, without variation, which is a tell for propaganda phrases and talking points. In the context of Libya, there was a line about “African Mercenaries”. The one I keep hearing about Syria is that Assad has “Afghan Shia militias” fighting for him.

The phrase caught my attention, because when I heard it used, it was by people who don’t know Afghanistan. The country has sectarian and linguistic differences: there are two official languages (Dari and Pashto), there are different self-identified ethnic groups (Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara), there are rural-urban differences, and there are differences of sect within the main religion (Sunni and Shia Islam). For the first few centuries of its existence, including the first several decades of the 20th century, Afghanistan’s leaders tried to create a nationalism that transcended these differences. Then came the war and the foreign interventions that played the differences up for short-term gain, destroying the country so thoroughly that it now sits near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index.

The phrase “Afghan Shia” doesn’t mean much in Afghanistan. There are rare exceptions, but if you are talking about “Afghan Shia”, you are probably talking about the Hazara, a group of people traditionally oppressed along caste and ethnic lines. The one book many Westerners have read about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, prominently features the oppression and violence against a Hazara boy, a friend of the protagonist. During the Afghan wars, sectarian warlords and the Taliban singled Hazara communities out for massacres and atrocities. Millions of Afghans fled to Iran during these wars — many of them Hazara – and were mistreated there, often charged with trumped-up crimes and even executed en masse. Nonetheless, there is a long-term community of Afghans living in Iran, many of whom are Hazara.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban, there have developed in Afghanistan armed Hazara groups, even Hazara warlords. These groups are mainly preoccupied with self-defense and survival: against the Taliban, other sectarian warlords, and now even ISIS in Afghanistan, which was why I was suspicious of the claims of “Afghan Shia Militia” fighting in Syria. I asked friends in the Afghan diaspora if they thought it was possible. Some thought yes, though none had heard of the phenomenon from the Afghan media or community.

I came across two sources about these Afghan Shia Militia in the footnotes of Christopher Phillips’s book, The Battle for Syria. One, an article from May 11, 2015 in Der Speigel by Christoph Reuter, is titled “The Afghans Fighting Assad’s War“. It is hard to tell whether the fact that Germany hosts a big Afghan refugee and diaspora community (or whether racist resentment against Muslim refugees in Germany is often focused on the Afghan community) played a helpful role in finding the hook for this one, but its dubious analysis is on display more clearly in other ways. After an evocative scene with “Murad”, cowering in a pile of Syrian rubble having followed his Iranian officer’s orders, Reuter provides some paragraphs of context.

“The Assad family dictatorship is running out of soldiers and is becoming increasingly reliant on mercenaries. Indeed, from the very beginning the Assad regime had an opponent that it could never really defeat: Syria’s demography.

“In order to prevent the collapse of Syrian government forces, experienced units from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah began fighting for Assad as early as 2012. Later, they were joined by Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis — Shiites from all over, on whom the regime is increasingly dependent. But the longer the war continues without victory, the more difficult it has become for Assad’s allies to justify the growing body count.”

Of course, “Syria’s demography” is only an unbeatable enemy if the demographer is a devoted sectarian who assumes that all Sunni Syrians are against Assad and all Shia, Alawi, or Christian Syrians are for Assad. Such a demographer would be at home in ISIS, in al Qaeda, or in the Saudi Kingdom and if that demographer were correct, yes, because Sunni Syrians are the majority, demography wins. But a full sectarian split in Syria remains an aspiration of ISIS and al-Qaeda, not a reality, despite what Reuter writes.

As for Reuter’s picture of “Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis – Shiites from all over”, this is a distorted mirror image of the reality, which is that foreign fighters “from all over” have come to Syria to join ISIS and fight against the Syrian government. Drinking in the sectarianism of Wahhabi clerics from the Saudi Kingdom, they hate the Shia and find religious rationales for every manner of atrocity against them. On the other side, Shia militias from Iraq are well-documented in Syria, and given the geography and the connections between the two countries (and the fact that their enemy, ISIS, operates in both countries), it makes sense. So, too, does the involvement of Hizbollah of Lebanon. But the recruitment of sectarian fighters “from all over”? That’s an ISIS/al-Qaeda cause, not a Shia one.

It is not until a few paragraphs later, though, that Reuter gets into some really ugly imagery.

“Up to 2 million Hazara live in Iran, most of them as illegal immigrants. It is an inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate, from which the Pasdars — as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are called — have recruited thousands for the war in Syria over the last year and a half.”

An “inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate”! By that logic, surely Iran’s population of 79 million would be even more inexhaustible! Some of these millions might be children, elderly, not military-aged, but no matter. Might Iran, whose interest is for Assad to actually win the war, be interested in sending some of its own half-million strong military with some training, equipment, maybe even language skills, rather than recruiting from Afghan refugee camps? Obviously not, for in Reuter’s world, the only qualification is desperation.

Reuter then returns to Murad’s story – a refugee arrested for a petty crime in Iran and offered amnesty if he would serve as cannon fodder in Syria. He then repeats the description of an anonymous Syrian rebel, who says the Afghans are “incredibly tenacious, run faster than we do and keep shooting even after they have been surrounded” – like machines, Reuter adds for colour. He outlines what happened to Murad for him to end up under rubble and how he wants to go back to Afghanistan, “to the misery he once tried to escape.” As he hangs out with the rebel commanders who are trying to arrange prisoner exchanges – rebels for Afghan prisoners — Reuter hears that the Syrian government officer Colonel Suhail al-Hassan, aka the Tiger, says “You can kill them, they’re just mercenaries. We can send you thousands of them.” An interesting response indeed for a commander whose army is “running out of soldiers”.

In the end, Reuter’s sole sources are anonymous rebels and “Murad”, whose story can’t be checked. The rest is bald assertion and “the Shia are coming” fear-mongering.

Another source is a report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which Israel Lobby scholar Stephen M. Walt has called” a key organization in the Israel Lobby”. This report, “Iran’s Afghan Shiite Fighters in Syria”, is written by Phillip Smyth, who also writes a blog called Hizballah Cavalcade “which focuses on Shiite Islamist militarism in the Middle East”; and author of another monograph called “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects”. In other words, expect fair and balanced on this one.

Smyth begins citing the WSJ (May 22/14) that Iran was recruiting “Afghan Shiite refugees to fight in Syria” with promises of Iranian residency and $500 per month. In 2012, Smyth continues, the Free Syrian Army posted on YouTube videos of interrogations of “Afghan Shiite fighter” Mortada Hussein; in 2013, “opposition and regime social media ciriculated undconfirmed images of uniformed Afghans posing together and holding weapons. In many cases, their faces – which tended to be ethnically distinct – were clearly shown… Yet these fallen Afghans were never named.”

Despite the lack of names, Smyth has more than a few “ethnically distinct faces” to show. He cites Afghan writer Ahmad Shuja, who had written about a small refugee community of Afghans (mainly Hazara) who had been living in Syria before the conflict broke out. “Their migration to Syria occurred in several small waves,” Shuja wrote, “with most fleeing Afghanistan to escape ethno-religious persecution and a few settling in the country after their pilgrimage to the holy Shiite sites in the country.” Shuja’s article describes the dire humanitarian situation of these Afghan refugees who were displaced from their neighbourhood of Syeda Zainab in 2012, “easily identifiable by their Asiatic features and foreign accents, making them easy targets for attacks by all sides.” Shuja quotes from a letter from an Afghan refugee reporting that “Afghan Refugees are victimized of torture and they have been threatened just because they are different and they believe in a religion as called ‘Shiite’.” Based on this piece by Shuja, Smyth makes the following suggestion (my emphasis): Fighters from this refugee population appear to have followed an organizational model similar to Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), the main pro-regime Shiite brigade in Syria. What follows in Smyth’s piece is a description of LAFA, which it turns out comprises Iraqis, not Afghans.

Another source, Smyth says, is what Reuter called the “inexhaustible reserves of the desperate” – the Afghan refugee population in Iran. For this claim, Smyth cites “Iranian government-backed newspapers and Afghan Shiite sources”. And “a third and more debatable source of Afghan Shiite fighters is refugee populations in countries other than Iran and Syria”, but “real evidence of direct recruitment in Afghanistan has yet to surface.

The rest of the article is mainly speculation of what Iran could be thinking by using these fighters. There is mention of Afghans captured by Syrian rebels. Three names are offered: Reza Ismail, who “had attended Iran’s University of Mashhad” and was “beheaded by Sunni jihadist rebels”, Ali Saleihi, an Afghan refugee in Syria who joined the fight and was killed around Damascus, and the aforementioned Mortada Hossein. In other words, the report is a mix of rebel videos, rebel testimonies, mention of “Iranian newspapers and Afghan Shiite sources”, and speculation.

By 2016, some amazing numbers are being bandied around. An Iranian foreign legion apparently includes 20,000 “Afghan Shia fighters”, according to Al Jazeera. The source? Anas al-Abdah, “the secretary of the opposition Syrian Coalition’s political committee.” A Guardian report from June 2016, like many others, cites “a senior Iranian official” saying that Iran’s “Foreign Legion”, called the Fatimeyoun, has 18,000 Afghans fighting in Syria. The report acknowledges that the number could be “exaggerated” and cites “an independent Iran analyst” who thinks there are “a couple of thousand” Afghans fighting in Syria.

Maybe. But it remains impossible to get verifiable information from rebel held areas, as Patrick Cockburn wrote last year. As for the broken telephone that led a “senior Iranian official” to report tens of thousands of Afghan fighters operating in Syria and that getting reported in Western outlets like the Guardian and Gulf-Western outlets like Al-Jazeera? Again, maybe. But the certainty with which these speculations are discussed and the ready quality of the phrase, “Afghan Shia Militias”, suggests some other function at work.

The Hazara of Afghanistan are discriminated against in their country, as Hazara. They are attacked by the Taliban, massacred by ISIS, and embattled by other sectarian warlords as Shia. They are discriminated against in Iran as Afghans. They are mistreated and oppressed in Europe and North America as migrants, as refugees, and as Muslims. It seems to me that the phrase “Afghan Shia Militias” is actually about rubbing some of that racial stigma off on the Syrian government and its supporters. In that sense, the “Afghan Shia Militias” play a similar symbolic role to the myth of the “African Mercenaries” that was used to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya. Patrick Cockburn wrote about this at the time:

“The killing of so-called mercenaries in Tripoli is a case in point. Since February, the insurgents, often supported by foreign powers, claimed that the battle was between Gaddafi and his family on the one side and the Libyan people on the other. Their explanation for the large pro-Gaddafi forces was that they were all mercenaries, mostly from black Africa, whose only motive was money. In the early days of the conflict, some captured Gaddafi soldiers were shown off at press conferences as mercenaries. Amnesty International investigators discovered that all had subsequently been quietly freed since they were, in fact, undocumented labourers from Chad, Mali and West Africa. But the effect of this propaganda has been to put in danger many African migrants and dark-coloured Libyans.”

Maximilien Forte, author of Slouching Towards Sirte, wrote about the “African Mercenaries” of Libya in 2011 as well:

“The “African mercenary” myth continues to be one of the most vicious of all the myths, and the most racist. Even in recent days, newspapers such as the Boston Globe uncritically and unquestioningly show photographs of black victims or black detainees with the immediate assertion that they must be mercenaries, despite the absence of any evidence. Instead we are usually provided with casual assertions that Gaddafi is “known to have” recruited Africans from other nations in the past, without even bothering to find out if those shown in the photos are black Libyans. The lynching of both black Libyans and Sub-Saharan African migrant workers has been continuous, and has neither received any expression of even nominal concern by the U.S. and NATO members, nor has it aroused the interest of the so-called “International Criminal Court”.”

Yesterday’s “African Mercenaries”, today’s “Afghan Shiite Militias”. The subtext is the same as it was with Gaddafi: if Assad has “Afghan Shiite Militias” fighting for him, what atrocity is he incapable of?

The truth is a casualty of war. Propaganda operations are some of modern warfare’s most important strategies and no rebellion could afford to neglect them. The phrase “Afghan Shiite Militias” is a tool of the war, and it is no mystery why the Gulf monarchies and the rebels they sponsor would use it. What is harder to stomach is when people who have never met an “Afghan Shiite” and have no knowledge of Afghanistan repeat the phrase.

First published on TeleSUR on May 18, 2017:

The much-maligned views of Rania Khalek on Syria

When journalist Rania Khalek’s lecture was cancelled on February 27, the group that invited her, Students for Justice in Palestine – University of North Carolina (SJP-UNC) issued a statement saying that the cancellation was because of Rania’s “views” on Syria, and that they believed “her invitation would mistakenly imply SJP to hold such views”. They also added that they “do not endorse nor reject her views on the Syrian civil war as they remain relatively unclear according to our members’ diverse opinions of Rania’s analyses.”

Image of RK

In response to the cancellation, a large number of signers, many of whom have been involved with Palestine solidarity, signed a statement against Rania’s blacklisting but also against blacklisting in general. That statement concluded:

“The signers of this statement hold a range of views on Syria. Some agree with Khalek; others disagree – in some cases quite vehemently. But we feel that when a group seeking justice in Palestine subjects speakers or members to a political litmus test related to their views on Syria, it inevitably leads to splits, silencing, confusion, and a serious erosion of trust. It runs contrary to the possibility of people learning from one another, changing their minds, and educating one another through their activism. Disagreements about political issues exist inside every movement coalition. They must not be made fodder for targeted vilification of activists in the movement.”

The statement “against blacklisting” triggered another wave of slanders, as many of the same people who had pressured the SJP to cancel her talk approached signers to argue that they should not have signed. Among their arguments was that there is and should be a political litmus test, one that Rania fails. As an initial signer myself, I was approached more than once by friends who suggested that I didn’t really know Rania’s views.

The people that have written about Rania publicly range from truly creepy stalkers to left academics who fired off a quick set of libels and then expressed dismay at the responses to them. But other than people talking about her, it is in fact rather difficult to find any sources for these “views” of hers that apparently disqualify her to speak or publish on any topic.

Out of concern that maybe I didn’t really know them, I sought Rania out to ask her about these much-maligned but rarely aired “views”.

Justin Podur (JP): Are you an Assadist?

Rania Khalek (RK): I am not a fan of the Syrian government. I’m not out here to support the Syrian government.

What I oppose is the dismantling of the Syrian state which is what several major powers have tried to do in the past six years. I oppose that because we’ve seen what it looks like in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and I don’t want to see that happen to Syria.

I also oppose the current alternative to the Syrian government, which is a patchwork of Salafi Jihadist groups that want to impose strict religious law, kill minorities, and stone women for adultery. That’s unacceptable to me, and to many people including my relatives who live in Syria who happen to be minorities.

JP: So, this is your first “view”. Based on your understanding of what happened after the removal of Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam in Iraq, and other countries, you oppose the destruction of the state, and based on your understanding of groups like Nusra and ISIS, you do not support the opposition to the Syrian government. The people who call you Assadist for this should also call people who opposed the war in Iraq Saddam-ist, the people who opposed the war in Libya Gaddafi-ist, etc.

RK: Exactly. And I think it is an unfair portrayal and an inaccurate binary because if you don’t support these Islamist rebel groups that have ultraconservative ambitions, that supposedly makes you a supporter of a dictator and that’s not fair.

I would love to see a democratic Syria. I would love to see a Syria where parties other than the Ba’ath could flourish and run in elections. The fact now is that there’s a right-wing, far-right insurgency funded by some of the biggest powers in the world trying to destroy the country. Under current conditions it’s nearly impossible for people to organize for basic reforms.

JP: Ah. Here too there is a genuine difference of opinion with supporters of the Syrian revolution who argue the opposite: that as long as Assad is in place, you can’t have reform.

RK: Right, but that should be a debatable point for political discussion. Why can’t we debate it?

JP: I agree. Your contention that reform is impossible while this rebellion continues and the contention that reform is impossible while the regime is in power are different assessments of the situation that it should be possible to discuss within the movement.

My next question: Did you attend an Assad-sponsored public relations (PR) conference in Damascus?

RK: I was able to travel to Syria, was able to get my visa approval to Syria, by agreeing to attend a 2-day conference in Damascus hosted by a pro-government British NGO.

I went there along with several prominent journalists from every mainstream outlet in the West: NYT, Washington Post, NPR, BBC, LA Times, Telegraph, The Times (UK).

JP: I recently watched a PBS documentary from a few years ago called Inside Assad’s Syria. That journalist was on a regime-guided tour.

RK: That’s the only way to get into the government-controlled areas of Syria. It’s a police state. They only allow you to see certain things. If you are a journalist you should have that in mind and keep that clear.

JP: It is often the case that if you’re a journalist reporting on any kind of conflict, the only way to get in is to go with one side or the other. It is one of the reasons it is so hard to get good information about conflicts and something Patrick Cockburn wrote about last year.

RK: All of these journalists agreed to go to this conference so they could go to the government areas, where the majority of people still remaining in the country live. If you want to talk to these people, you have to get a visa, which means you have to get the agreement of the government. Each individual paid their own way, stay, transportation. I wasn’t funded by the regime. I paid my own way. I didn’t even end up going to the conference. I was pressured not to go after it was discovered that my name was included on the program even though I didn’t agree to speak (along with several others who hadn’t agreed to speak).

Mainstream journalists spoke at this conference, on more than one panel. None of them were smeared the way I was. It was a campaign to get me fired and it worked. Because of this smear against me, there has been a soft boycott of any of my reporting, which is the point.

Anybody who repeats that I “spoke at an Assad-sponsored PR conference in Syria”, may be misled or malicious, but either way they are participating in a process that tries to ensure none of my reporting gets any airtime.

JP: So, on this point: like every mainstream journalist working on Syria, and alongside many of them, you traveled to government-controlled areas and attended government events with government permission.

My next question: Reuters, Al-Jazeera, and other outlets reported in December 2016 that rebels had poisoned the Damascus water supply. I remember you tweeted about it. And in March, a UN report looking at satellite photos and asking people there, said that it was the government bombing its own water supply. According to the NYT in March 2017 “investigators said video of the bombings, witness testimony and satellite imagery showed the water supply system had been damaged in at least two airstrikes using high-explosive bombs,” and that the idea that the water facilities were damaged from the ground was “inconsistent with observable physical evidence”. What do you make of this?

RK: The rebels in Wadi Barada were al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria – they have changed their name again since but they are still al-Qaeda). Wadi Barada is where the water supply for Damascus comes from. My own sources on the ground said that al Qaeda affiliated rebels put diesel in the water. There was a water shortage and it was bad for everybody in Damascus including friends of mine who live there. The valley where this water is, was destroyed in some bombing. Both sides blamed each other, although there were pictures of rebels victoriously standing on top of the destroyed water infrastructure. You have claims from both sides and in this case it doesn’t make sense to me that the government would bomb its own water supply.

JP: Damascus is the capital, a government-held area. This one seems to me to be debatable as well. The government has been brutal towards rebel-held areas, but it is hard to identify what the logic might be for the government to destroy its own water supply, and easy to identify why the rebels would want to do it.

RK: The rebels have done this before, in Aleppo; ISIS has done it when they controlled the Euphrates.

I have no problem believing that the government of Syria has done bad things. They have. In this case, sources that I trust, that aren’t in the government, are telling me that this report is inaccurate. There’s no way I or my detractors can prove it one way or the other.

JP: So, in your opinion, this is an open and factual question that is difficult to resolve. Like many others, you reported that the rebels damaged the water supply and you continue to believe that it was the rebels. This, too, seems like an area in which people could disagree in their assessments of the evidence and the logic.

Now I have a question that reasonable people cannot disagree on – claims about you that I believe are false and want to check. One academic said that you “defend Syrian bombing of heavily populated civilian areas”. Do you?

RK: I have never done this. Not once. Not ever. That is all.

JP: Doing so would make you some kind of monster. It would be an ugly thing to do, like when Hussam Ayloush from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of your detractors, tweeted that he was “sad” that a Russian military plane crash killed “just 92” people when the plane could have fit 180. He later apologized, but it is hard not to note that his first instinct was to celebrate deaths and wish for more of them.

RK: I don’t support the violence dished out by the Syrian government. I have never done that. I never would. I’ve never even cheered on Syrian government violence against Al Qaeda. Civilians? I would never ever in a million years support violence against civilians and I never have.

JP: The same professor who said you did, also said you “attack reputable human rights organizations that document such war crimes”. Not sure what he means by “attack”, but what is your response to this one?

RK: I find it really surprising that so many people want to accept any narrative they are given from any organization – and it’s usually the same people who are constantly questioning these organizations on other issues, especially related to Palestine. On Palestine we know everything is so biased, yet on Syria we are supposed to accept every claim from the same outlets and organizations. We should always be challenging these things especially when our government is involved. I’m not denying atrocities have taken place. I feel it’s necessary to challenge human rights organizations when they are reporting claims made without evidence.

JP: So, to summarize, if you have a “view” about this, it is that one should “challenge human rights organizations when they are reporting claims made without evidence.”

RK: These organizations have a history of playing fast and loose with the facts when the countries accused are on the wrong side of US foreign policy. Then there are the human rights organizations that receive funding from USAID. It is crucial that we question claims that they’re making as well.

JP: So you are saying: when you receive a claim of an atrocity, regardless of source, look at evidence.

RK: Yes, look at evidence. Don’t take claims by rebel groups at face value when there aren’t independent human rights organizations on the ground. The Syrian government lies too. I don’t think you should accept their claims without evidence either. In Gaza you had independent human rights investigators and journalists. You don’t have that in Syria really on either side. Anything coming out on Syria from either side should be looked at with a great deal of scepticism.

JP: So, if the professor had rephrased “attack reputable human rights organizations” to “challenge claims that come without evidence, even from reputable human rights organizations”, he would be on solid ground.

The last thing this professor added was that you apparently “insist that the Syrian resistance consists of only foreign-backed Islamist terrorists”. I guess he is upset because to people who favour the opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are not “foreign-backed Islamist terrorists”. Do you insist that they are? Even if you did, I think that too is an assessment that could be debated, but please tell me your view.

RK: I don’t use the word “terrorist”, so I wouldn’t accept that statement about me. As for what I think about the FSA: It was a loose collection of fighting factions. There may have been some moderate ones at the beginning, but that did not last, and what matters is what it’s become, which is basically absorbed into the other, Islamist armed groups. The FSA has worked alongside Nusra and even carried out operations with ISIS before ISIS and Nusra became enemies. The FSA and Nusra have a similar goal, which is some sort of state with Islamist elements. That doesn’t mean everyone who fought with the FSA were trying to impose an Islamic state. But the strongest fighters were Islamist and sectarian and it is that strain that prospered. At this point in 2017 no one can name a fighting group trying to overthrow the government that isn’t completely Sunni and extremely sectarian. The armed opposition never got majority popular support because it was from the start very sectarian and eventually entirely Sunni, it was fighting for Islamist aims and to impose an Islamic state. The vast majority of people in Syria oppose that, even people who don’t support the government. They fear the rebels more than they fear the government. I am talking about the facts here, not my views. In 2017, is there a fighting force in Syria trying to overthrow the government that isn’t sectarian and Islamist? I don’t see one.

JP: What about the idea that there are local councils flourishing in rebel areas?

RK: The local councils quickly lost control in rebel areas. There is still local control in areas that have participated in reconciliation agreements with the government. There will probably be more local control going forward and that’s a good thing. And it’s important to remember that the local councils in rebel areas were promoted and even funded by people who wanted intervention and escalation, including the state department.

An encouraging development in Syria that often goes ignored is that many people who supported the opposition are now in reconciliation processes with the government that are being facilitated by mediation groups. The local councils that are in charge in those reconciliation-agreement areas never had a chance under an extremist opposition that was armed by Saudi, Qatar, Turkey, and the US—countries that have zero interest in actual democracy, progressives, or liberal feminists in the region.

JP: So, here we have two factual or perhaps analytical questions: 1. What is the extent of non-Islamist armed opposition? 2. To what extent was unarmed opposition able to flourish in rebel-held areas? According to your analysis, the answer to both questions is “virtually none”. But these, too, seem to me to be questions about how one assesses evidence about the war, not about whether you hold some sort of discriminatory views.

RK: Look, I am a minority Arab woman with relatives in both Syria and Lebanon. The opposition groups that weren’t al Qaeda, they often worked alongside it. They have killed people like me based solely on their identity. This isn’t about supporting dictatorship. It’s about survival for many people in the region, for people who don’t want to live under a Saudi-Arabia style system. That’s what is happening here. A lot of the people smearing me are coming at me from a very sectarian and conservative place. I’m being attacked by the most conservative elements in the Arab community. It’s been really stunning to see so many people who call themselves leftists and progressives buy into their side of the story and completely brush me aside as a dictator-lover without considering that – hey, maybe there’s a reason why secular Arabs and minorities like Rania wouldn’t want to live under Salafi Jihadist groups.

JP: Your February disinvitation came after some tweets about Wahhabism and Salafism. You wrote that “Yes, being Salafi or Wahhabi doesn’t mean you’re violent, but it definitely means you’re an extreme bigot and misogynist.” I noticed a very quick and extraordinary reaction to that tweet. One of the first reactions that I saw was someone who told you to “Stop talking about Palestine” if you believed this. I have seen that reaction many times. I found it a very interesting reaction – “stop talking about Palestine”. Why is that the first reaction? Here’s a topic that is basically taboo in the West, something that one can’t talk about without potentially severe consequences, and when you say something these people don’t like, they tell you to “stop talking about Palestine” as if every other part of society isn’t already telling you to shut up about Palestine.

RK: It is really striking the way that Palestine solidarity, outlets, and activists have been attacked from the beginning by the people who support intervention in Syria. They are going out of their way to silence Palestine activism.

Even in the region now, Palestine is the last thing on people’s minds. There’s also an attempt to equate Syria with Palestine. The tactic of saying, if you support resistance in Palestine but not the Syrian opposition, you’re a hypocrite and you have no right to talk about Palestine. But Palestine and Syria are different. Palestine is being occupied and colonized by the Israelis. That is what Palestinians are fighting against. You don’t have to like the Syrian Army to recognize that, unlike the colonial Israeli army, it is indigenous to Syria and fighting an armed insurgency that includes tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have more in common with the religious and supremacist ideology of Israeli settlers than with Palestinians. You can’t just support any armed resistance. It matters what the resistance is fighting for. If you are fighting colonialism, I can support that. If you are fighting to impose an Islamic State, I can’t support that.

On top of that, there is no consensus among Palestinians about Syria. Among the many Palestinians who live in Syria, there are those who support the opposition, those who have tried to remain neutral, and those who are fighting on the side of the regime. It isn’t an easy situation. There is no consensus among Arabs or Palestinians. It’s disingenuous to use the issue of Palestine to sell your position on Syria.

JP: I have been struck by how focused it all is on preventing people from speaking.

But back to that tweet. I can understand how that might incense someone who identifies themselves as Salafi or Wahhabi, being called an “extreme bigot and misogynist”, and would lead to them countering by calling you an Islamophobe. How would you respond to that accusation?

RK: I made a statement about this on Facebook. It isn’t Islamophobic to criticize Salafism and Wahhabism. These are far-right, puritanical ideologies that promote genocide against minorities and whose belief systems are at the inspirational root of what drives al Qaeda and ISIS and groups like them. It’s shocking to me to see people try to suppress criticism of these ultra-conservative ideologies by invoking Islamophobia. Islamophobia is a serious issue in this country and should not be thrown around lightly. It is analogous to labeling people who criticize Zionism as anti-Semites. People have said that I am not Muslim so I can’t criticize these things. But these ideologies address me directly – they say I’m killable and nonhuman. This is not some hypothetical. The fatwas of Salafi and Wahhabi scholars are invoked by Salafi Jihadist groups to justify forcibly converting, enslaving and killing people like me. As a minority from the region I have every right to talk about murderous ideologies that call for my enslavement and/or death.

More importantly, the US is very supportive of these ideologies and has used them against Arab nationalists and communists. People on the left shouldn’t be defending these ideologies in the name of combatting Islamophobia. First, it’s insulting because it equates all Muslims with Wahhabis and Salafists. Secondly, Shia mosques are being blown up all over the world because of these ideas, which have been spread deliberately by petrodollars from Saudi Arabia. It’s the same US-backed ideology that inspired 9/11. We need to talk about this honestly.

JP: The academic mentioned above who accuses you of whitewashing government crimes points to a story you did about how sanctions are damaging Syria’s economy. I’m not sure how the latter leads to the former. But maybe you can elaborate.

RK: I don’t deny the Syrian government is killing people. I’ve seen the results of their bombings. They bomb everything. It’s an overwhelming indiscriminate level of violence against opposition areas. But this is a two-sided war, a multi-sided war in fact. I have been saying this is a two-sided war.

So the charts saying the government is responsible for 95% of all civilian deaths shouldn’t be believed. The opposition has killed around 100,000 pro-government fighters. If the government has killed 95% of the civilians, then that means the side of the war that has al Qaeda in it has almost exclusively killed government forces, which would make it the noblest fighting force in history. I don’t whitewash the government’s atrocities. I have said something that’s obvious – there are many sides fighting and many sides killing civilians.

JP: Al Qaeda is famous for anti-civilian operations. But let’s continue about the sanctions.

RK: I wrote a report that said that sanctions are destructive to civilians. I am not ashamed for reporting on that. People have tried to distort my reporting on sanctions by saying it whitewashes government atrocities. The sanctions have destroyed Syria’s economy and made it extremely difficult to get humanitarian aid in during one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in the world. The US has flooded Syria with weapons and money for armed groups while its sanctions obstruct humanitarian aid to people caught in the crossfire. That’s something that should be opposed. Stephen Zunes wrote about the sanctions against Iraq and how awful they were. He’s saying I whitewash the regime for having the same position on the Syria sanctions, which have by the way denied cancer medications to children in Syria. The hypocrisy is cartoonish. People who opposed sanctions on Iraq are attacking me for having the same position on Syria.

JP: It is really bizarre because if opposing the sanctions on Syria makes you an Assad apologist, opposing the sanctions on Iraq must make you a Saddam apologist, and Saddam is not someone these people would want to be associated with any more than Assad.

RK: I think the difference is this: The US invaded Iraq with tens of thousands of American soldiers. Syria has been a proxy that the US outsourced to Salafi jihadist groups. So people don’t see it as a war on Syria.

JP: To conclude, I see four things here:

1) a set of assessments about you have about specific issues like the Damascus water supply, the extent of non-Islamist armed groups and popular support for the opposition, and the impact of the sanctions;

2) a set of political views you hold that are fairly common among leftists including strong support for secularism, opposition to Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies, and scepticism of even mainstream human rights organizations when they present claims that go beyond the evidence they present;

3) a set of statements about you that are false (e.g. that you “defend attacks against civilians”, “went on an Assad-sponsored PR tour”, etc.).

4) mixing all these together to talk about your “views” as if you hold discriminatory views about defined groups of people.

But you don’t. You are a leftist supporter of equal rights for all and a holder of unequivocal anti-discrimination views. Nobody should be doing #3 and #4, and if people have issues with #1 and #2, we should be debating those on the merits.

Originally published at ZNet on March 31/17

The Carnage of Demonetisation in India

On the evening of November 8, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, went on live television to tell over one billion people that their 500- and 1000- rupee bills were invalid as of that night. They could exchange their invalid bills for new 500- and 2000-rupee bills at the bank. The exchange of notes was stopped on November 24, equally abruptly. There is a new deadline of December 30, 2016 for the deposit of all of the demonetised notes.

The economic damage caused by this unannounced fiat remains to be calculated. But it will be devastating. A ratings agency, Fitch, predicted a reduction of growth of 0.5% of GDP solely due to this ‘demonetisation’. Other estimates have been a 1% reduction, or a 2% reduction in growth. But the Forbes article reporting the prediction, in its title, points out that “No One Really Knows”. As for the editor of Forbes Magazine, he has called demonetisation “sickening” and “immoral”: “What India has done is commit a massive theft of people’s property without even the pretense of due process–a shocking move for a democratically elected government.” Forbes compared the move to the forced sterilization program of the 1970s: “Not since India’s short-lived forced-sterilization program in the 1970s–this bout of Nazi-like eugenics was instituted to deal with the country’s “overpopulation”–has the government engaged in something so immoral.” Historian Sashi Sivramkrishna pointed out that induced currency shortages helped cause the Great Bengal Famine of 1770.

The idea of demonetisation was to crack down on “black money”. The government claims that the users of this “black money” to attack India’s currency and conduct illicit business include, of course, the insurgents in Kashmir, the Maoists in Central India and of course, Pakistan. A flood of articles predicting the damage that would be done to these “black money” users followed – sourcing the police and army. Like this one, that said the demonetisation was “set to cripple the Maoists”. Or this one, a week after the announcement, that says that youth in Kashmir stopped throwing stones at the Indian military because of demonetisation. Other miracle cures by demonetisation will surely follow, as these ones are discredited.

It is worth noting that “black money” is unpopular. But, as this video from The Wire shows, demonetisation doesn’t address “black money” production by big businesses who don’t declare income or bribes by politicians who move their money overseas. Indeed, an astounding exemption was made for political parties who will be able to deposit their old currency freely.

The problem is that hundreds of millions of Indians – 80% of them, providing 40-50% of the GDP – work in the rural and informal economy and depend on cash transactions to survive. They don’t have bank accounts and consequently faced strict limits on how much they could exchange. Their small businesses are done in cash. Investigators from the left website Newsclick found a 25% reduction in the flow of vegetables to Delhi. These people had to run to banks that don’t work well for them at the best of times. They traveled to the banks however they could, stood in queues, and went back cashless day after day. The Indian Express counted 33 deaths in the first week. This video by the news site The Wire is indicative. A villager needed cash to see a doctor. Her husband waited in line for four days at the bank before giving up. She died. Now the husband has no cash for her funeral rites.

The other problem is that, while the surprise nature of the announcement was designed to catch black money users off their guard, the government also surprised itself – the banks weren’t ready, the printing presses weren’t ready to produce the new currency, and people who got the new notes were so afraid that a problem of hoarding the new currency immediately arose – a classic cash crunch. The best move at this point, would probably to be to walk back from this manmade disaster and re-monetise the notes, as Sashi Sivramkrishna argued in The Wire. Sivramkirshna also noted that the government was unlikely to re-monetise, but instead likely to double down and proceed into an artificially induced recession.

The government’s response has been to ease the process of demonetisation for the middle class – those with bank accounts and cards for cashless transactions – and to mount a PR campaign, including some paid tweets with the hashtag #IndiaDefeatsBlackMoney. But “black money” will emerge from this fiasco unscathed, while poor people lose their livelihoods and, in unforgivable numbers, their lives.

As Venezuela, facing genuine economic warfare including attacks on its currency, makes desperate moves to try to counter its own “black money” problems, Modi’s demonetisation should be a warning. The Venezuelan government backed away from a sudden plan to demonetise the 100-bolivar bill and has extended the deadline once, showing a flexibility in the face of reality that Modi has lacked. There are better plans out there for a government that actually cares about its poor majority than following Modi in bankrupting them.

First published by TeleSUR English:

My studies of writing

Everybody writes. I started studying writing in the high school writer’s craft course. I don’t remember many craft lessons from that class but I do remember writing a lot of stories, which is what was important – to get writing. Since 2010 but intensifying in 2015 and 2016, I have spent a lot of time reading about writing, taking courses about writing, and trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned. Here’s some of what I’ve read and thought.


I started around 2010 because in that year I tried to submit my writing to a bunch of magazines that I had never submitted to before. I thought my writing was pretty good. I’d been in Znet and Z Magazine with the best of them, so why not try some other publications? I got a raft of decisive rejections and very little feedback. What feedback I did get, suggested that they didn’t like my style. Style, and voice, are elusive terms. I started on a quest to figure out first what they meant, and then, whether we would have to agree to disagree (which I have mainly concluded) or whether I could improve my style (which maybe I have done).

I had already read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which is mainly about writing concise and clear prose. Followed that with Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which didn’t stick with me very much but which I remember liking. I had also read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, very important stuff about avoiding bureaucratic, deliberately muddled language and cliched images.

Recently picked up Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which had some interesting stuff in it – what I took from it mainly was his prescription to use classical style, in which you describe exactly what you mean using visual metaphors and talking across to your reader (as opposed to talking down to your reader). Very recently I read Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools, in which he talks about a “ladder of abstraction”, of using higher and lower levels of abstraction, and the placement of nouns and verbs in the sentence (at the beginning and at the end). Along the same lines, I was recommended Sol Stein On Writing, and Theodore A. Rees’s Getting the Words Right – 39 ways to improve your writing.

After all that, I still didn’t have a completely solid idea of style. Until this past summer, when I took a class on creative nonfiction for academics. One day was devoted to reading your writing out loud and listening for how the writing sounds. The patterns of consonants and vowels, the beats, basically thinking of writing as a piece of music. And then the images the writing brings up – what kinds of metaphors and similes the writer uses. That, I concluded, is style. And once I thought about it that way, I realized that Ursula K. LeGuin’s great little book, Steering the Craft, spends a lot of time on the way sentences sound.


Voice remains a bit elusive to me. I guess the idea is that someone should be able to tell it’s you writing just from reading a few sentences. There are many writers that I can identify instantly – because of their choices of style (see above). So, my definition of voice is the elements of your style that are unique to your writing. If you work on style, you’re working on voice. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about voice as distinct from style.

Story telling

Beyond the fact that they didn’t like my style, I was also getting criticisms that I needed to improve my story telling. Again, that was elusive to me, because I heard things like, stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. Hardly enough guidance to actually improve one’s story telling.

But Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery! Was a life changer for me – Roerden shows twenty-plus rookie mistakes that get groans from editors everywhere. It turned out that in the early 2000s I was racking up nearly double digits in the rookie mistakes category. After editing for Roerden’s mistakes, I had much cleaner writing.

Trying to figure this out, I had a story critiqued by a professional writer. She relied on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and the book that adapts it for writers, The Writer’s Journey, to criticize my story. The idea was that a story has a protagonist that undergoes an internal change as they take action out in the world to attain their goal through obstacles. A mythic structure that has come down through the ages. These ideas on storytelling came up again and again. I recently read a book called Story Genius that makes this point, and another called Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method.

A great book on non-fiction story telling was Jack Hart’s Storycraft. He takes you through stories that he worked on with writers at the Oregonian newspaper, many of which, he mentions casually, won the Pulitzer. There are lots of style guides that tell you to use active instead of passive verbs, but it took Jack Hart to tell me to use not just active but transitive verbs – in which someone does something to someone or something else. Beyond that, listening to This American Life, and the Serial podcast, have been my best examples of nonfiction storytelling in action.

Screenwriters have a lot of good stuff to say about storytelling. The best book I found was Robert McKee’s Story, which was very recently recommended to me. In that vein, there’s John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, and a very nice and fun book called Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder. I also liked Film Crit Hulk’s Screenwriting 101, which I picked up because I really liked his reviews of George RR Martin’s books.

Getting the work done

A colleague recommended Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, which is mainly about having a writing schedule. Stephen King’s book, On Writing, had the same message. Same with books like Odd Type Writers or Daily Rituals – all these people wrote around the same time every day, whether late at night or early in the morning. Write every day, at the same time every day, and you’ll produce enough words that you can have something to work with. Don’t have a schedule? Then you won’t be able to get your writing done. Schedule your time, and do your writing.

And now the worst part: promises of how to get published!

Aaaand then there’s my least favourite topic. Publishing. To me, publishing is more or less synonymous with rejection. And also, with getting marketed to. Everybody writes. And everybody who writes thinks thinks getting published means becoming JK Rowling. But publishing is a superstar system. You are as likely to win the lottery as to become a superstar writer.

And like the lottery, your role as a consumer or buyer of tickets is very important. A lot of marketing goes towards prospective writers: how-to books, MFAs, courses, seminars, workshops – all on how to get published. A lot of these experiences can be valuable. I’ve taken two online courses at the University of Iowa’s free massive open online courses (MOOC), and a series of coursera courses from Wesleyan university on creative writing, and gotten a lot out of them – including meeting other writers and forming critique groups. But it’s also easy to lose perspective and get sucked into this market, in which you, as a would-be-writer, are being lured along as a consumer by the promise of becoming a published writer – when what writing is really about is a connection between a writer and a reader. That is an ongoing struggle for me – how much am I learning, how much am I succumbing to being marketed to, how much am I getting shaken by constant rejection into trying to mold myself into something or someone I am not.

On writing queries, I read Lane Shefter Bishop’s Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence and The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters. I bought the Guide to Literary Agents for 2016. I used Thinking Like Your Editor and The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (many of these recommendations I got from Liza Dawson’s website resources section –

My own notes

My own observations from writing mainly political analysis for left online publications aren’t profound. My 2010 run of rejections were by publications I don’t read very much. The publications that I like a lot and read every day are also the ones that I found most open to publishing my work. What is this strange mystery? Could it be that I write like the material I spend most of my time reading? As I’ve branched out in my reading a bit, spending more time enjoying long-form narrative non-fiction and reading novels as fanatically as ever, I’ve had ideas for writing in these genres and pursued them. It takes a long time to learn a new way of writing (or working on anything), it has taken me a long time, and I am still learning. I like to think the real reason I want to be published in these new areas is because I want to contribute to the communities whose work I have enjoyed as a reader. Keeping that as far forward in mind as possible, I think will help anyone weather the inevitable rejections that are part of writing.

Héctor Mondragón: The plan to Gaza-ify the Colombian Peace Process

[This important article is by the Colombian economist and activist Héctor Mondragón and argues that Colombia’s landowning elite are not interested in peace, even though negotiators have gone to great lengths to placate them. Originally in Spanish – translated by Justin Podur.]

To understand what is happening with the Colombian Peace Accords, it is necessary to identify the enormous political power held by Colombia’s large landowners. Without understanding the problem of the concentration of land ownership, it is impossible to understand anything that has happened in the country in the past eighty years.

The Socialist Worker’s Party of Germany in 1875 identified in their program the problem that the means of production were under the monopoly control of the capitalist class. Marx criticized their formulation for neglecting the “monopoly of the land owners (the monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital)”. He added that even “in England the capitalist class is usually not even the owner of the land on which his factory stands.”

Now, in the 21st century, in Colombia the economic and political power of the large landowners is notorious. The prolonging of the armed conflict unleashed an agrarian counter-reform and millions of peasants are displaced. Colombia has become the country with the most expensive land in the region (1) and the majority of arable lands are not cultivated. (2). 

The armed conflict has become an anchor weighing down social movements and an obstruction in the path of workers and peasants’ struggles for their rights. It serves as the pretext for repression and murder of popular leaders. Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Colombians, peasants and unionists, and human rights defenders have paid the highest price in lives and suffering for the continuation of the armed conflict. They want an end to it.

The landowners have made their profits throughout the period of war. They have no interest in returning the lands they have stolen and want to continue the process of displacement. The war also serves those who impose mineral, petroleum, and other megaprojects that devastate the environment because it provides the pretext for the physical elimination of the leaders of opposition to these projects. These assassination campaigns are not unique to Colombia – they occur throughout Latin America and elsewhere in the world.

Those who profit from war will not accept any peace accord – not even one they were able to edit and redact – because they know that the main effect of the end of the armed conflict will be that the people, especially the peasantry, will be able to organize and mobilize as mass movements for their rights. This will not be tolerated unless it is imposed on them by a mobilization of millions of determined Colombians who refuse to accept a return to war and who refuse to believe systematic campaigns of lies.

Neither the peace accord signed in Cartagena on September 26, 2016 nor the one signed in Bogota on November 24, 2016 will be accepted by the spokespeople of the landowners and megaprojects because they will not accept any peace accord, ever.

The hope generated by the accord signed in Cartagena resembles the hope awoken by the Oslo Accords of September 13, 1993 between Israel and Palestine, for which Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat received the Nobel Prize in 1994.

The religious right never accepted the Oslo accords. Assassinations and attacks were the path by which the accord was eroded and finally torn apart. On November 4, 1995, after a huge demonstration of support for peace, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a religious extremist. Rabin had just said in his speech: “I was a military man for 27 years. I waged war as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe there is now a chance for peace, a great chance, and we must make the most of it.”

As fighting resumed between the Israeli Army and Palestinian armed groups, Yasser Arafat was under Israeli house arrest in Ramallah from 2001, a violation of what was left of the Oslo Accords of 1993. The Israeli government has continued to build colonies on recognized Palestinian territory, bombed and invaded Palestinian towns hundreds of times, and converted Gaza into a ghetto where Palestinians are systematically murdered and massacred. Israel is governed by those who opposed the peace accords, those who declared Rabin a “traitor” – instead of peace, there is a racist nightmare.

Colombians have to do whatever we must to defend peace, to avoid what has occurred in Palestine – to resist the planned Gaza-fication of Colombia’s peace process. Unfortunately, things are moving in the direction of Gaza-fication.

First, through a massive fraud, thousands of voters were misdirected by messages that told them their retirement pensions would be reduced and their social services eliminated if peace accords were approved; that the peace accord “promoted homosexuality” and the “gender ideology”; that taxi medallions would be seized to be given to demobilized guerrillas; that many respected and famous people (who were pro-peace accords and voted “Yes”) were going to vote “No”. The result of the failed plebiscite on the accord was the consequence of a fraud – but it was used to modify the accords.

Second, the modifications of the accords have come at the expense of the peasants, communities, and the promised rural reform.

The deterioration of the text of the peace accords could only be justified if the new accords would bring in an armed actor that has, so far, not agreed to peace. At the end of the day a peace accord is between enemies – it is not a piece of legislation defined by voting by the population. A peace accord is what it is precisely because it does not reflect the thinking of any of its signers who agree to it – it is essentially an agreement on mutual concessions by those who had been at war. And yet in this case concessions to landowners were given without any promises by them to agree to peace. Indeed, they continue to advance their own plans for the continuation of the war.

Third, and worst, since the days before the signing of the accords and more so in recent weeks, a new wave of assassinations of Indigenous, peasant, and Afro-Colombian leaders has been unleashed. Those who have questioned gas fracking in Cesar have been arrested and detained. In Caqueta, they have been assassinated. The young governor of Putumayo, who challenged traditional landowners and is a firm defender of peace and rural rights, has been ousted. The leftist former mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, was fined 67 million dollars because he lowered bus fares while in power.

Fourth, the mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, sent the police to destroy the Campamento de Paz, a camp which had been set up in the Plaza de Bolivar in anticipation of the ratification of a peace accord that would end the armed conflict.

Fifth, before ratifying the new peace accord, the national government ratified a law that seeks to regulate prior consultation with Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and other groups in the country. According to Indigenous organizations, it is an “affront without precedent”, one which contravenes national and international jurisprudence and, if adopted, would violate the fundamental collective rights of these groups.

Remember that among ex-president Alvaro Uribe’s proposals to modify the accord was “limiting prior consultation”. In the new accord, Uribe’s proposal was rejected, but the government has put the proposal into legislation instead.

The changes in the new accord that affect peasants all came from Uribe – in some cases they had input from Andres Pastrana and Marta Lucia Ramirez. The changes are motivated by a desire to confront, weaken, or neutralize the important definitions in the original accord on the peasant economy.

The accords recognize “the fundamental role of the peasant, family, and community economy.” But this is precisely what the successive governments have denied. Uribe, in his first electoral campaign, stirred the Agricultural Society of Colombia (SAC) when he declared his lack of confidence in any autonomous role for the peasantry and proclaimed the need to subordinate peasants to the big landowners: “We will install in Barrancabermeja a peasant association, and demand that the contractors integrate with an efficient enterprise in San Alberto, so that associated peasants and business owners with a tradition of efficiency can take responsibility for the success of these projects.” (3)

This subordination of the peasant has already been imposed in practice through strategic growers’ associations, especially palm oil growers, during the years that Andres Pastrana was president. Pastrana was also the president that brought in Plan Colombia (4). The subordination of the peasant continued under Uribe’s governments, which received funding from the World Bank to support “associations of producers” of “small agricultural producers” with “private enterprise” (5). This experience did not help Colombian agriculture. By the end of Uribe’s second government, it was in one of the worst crises the sector has ever seen.

The following has been added to the peace accords:

“ Associations. The government will foment and promote associations, links, and alliances between small, medium, and large agricultural producers along with processors, sellers, and exporters with the goal of guaranteeing economies of scale and competitiveness and value-added to contribute to the improvement of the living conditions of rural inhabitants in general and small producers in particular. Technical, legal, and economic (credit or finance) assistance will be provided to small producers with the goal of guaranteeing family and community economies that are balanced and sustainable.”

In this manner, the plans of the past three presidents, also the doctrine of the Chicoral Pact of 1972 – which stated that large producers were necessary to guarantee competitiveness – has been inserted into policy through the peace accords. In reality peasant agriculture can reach and in some cases exceed the efficiency of large-scale cultivation. And besides, independently of the scale of production, small producers are efficient when they have access to resources and when the environment permits. (6)

This modification works with the other: “The government will pass a law with the goal of promoting other forms of access to state lands, such as the assignment of usage rights.” The origin of this change lies in the government and the Zidres law, which states that the occupiers of vacant lands that do not meet the requisites for being granted title may “conclude contracts to real surface rights, which allow the use, enjoyment and layout of the rural properties they occupy.” Although the agreement limits this to medium producers, there is no doubt that land grabbers are very interested in this modification of the accord and have taken advantage of the “No” vote.

The traditional discourse has been inserted in the new agreement so that “big producers” and “medium producers” can try to neutralize – as they always have – any programs that favor the peasants.

One “principle” added to the proposal of the “No” promoters says:

“Rural Development: Rural development depends on a balance between different forms of production – family agriculture, agro-industry, tourism, commercial agreculture – on competitiveness and the necessity of promoting and encouraging investment in the countryside with a business vision of production as a condition of development; promotion and encouragement, under equitable conditions, of chains of rural production with other models of production, which could be vertical or horizontal at different scales. In all cases the peasant, family, and community economy will be supported and protected, strengthened and developed.”

The modified accord fortunately maintains the recognition of the fundamental role of the peasant economy, as well as the principles of Welfare and “Buen Vivir”. But it cannot be denied that even though they did not agree with the peace accord, the big landowners have succeeded in introducing their discourse into it. They will later be able to use it to impose their “balance” of activities, and to erode what was agreed upon about the participation of communities in planning and management.

The Colombian Constitution, from the preamble and first article, defines the country as a democratic and participatory republic. It is not a mere representative democracy. The text of the original accord developed this point when it sought “decision-making bodies at different territorial scales that include the presence of communities”. The modified accord now speaks of bodies “that guarantee the participation of communities in the process of decision-making.” That is, communities now participate – they don’t make the decisions.

The modified accord says that the mechanisms for participation “in no case will limit the powers of government or of its legislative bodies (Congress, Councils and Assemblies).” What the spokespeople for “No” denied to rural communities, they have claimed for themselves, limiting the powers of the President of the Republic to define the peace accords.

On the question of the campesino reserve lands, the modified accord simply adds that they will be “made by the competent authority in accordance with current regulations” – that was obvious in the previous agreement since there are clear existing regulations on these zones. Their application was frozen, first by decision of Uribe and after – by request of the Ministry of Defense! The original and modified agreement both seek the enforcement of the law on campesino reserve lands, which has been in force since 1994.

What has happened with the campesino reserves in the past 22 years shows that it is not about what a law, decree, or accord says, but about how the government can use the armed conflict to displace peasants from their lands and prevent peasants from exercising their rights.

In order to not return to the peasants what has been stolen from them, in order to continue with land grabs, in order to impose large-scale, open-pit mining, fracking, diversion of rivers for coal or for dams – the despoilers need for the conflict to continue. They need for there to not be peace and for Colombia to continue under the thumb of those who promoted the “No” vote in the peace accord.

This is no matter of simple parliamentary opposition to the peace accords. There is a new deployment of paramilitary groups, operating with their usual impunity, to enclose each community and convert it into a ghetto, like Gaza. In Colombia the communities most affected by the war voted massively for the “Yes” side in the referendum – especially the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. The enemies of peace are on the other side.

The defense of rural communities is also the struggle for food sovereignty. Donald Trump says he will protect the US from imports, but will promote exports, repeating the old history of The Big Stick to impose the consumption of North American exports, especially agricultural exports, on Latin America, produced specifically in the areas that voted massively for Trump. Without peace, they will continue to impose the destruction of our food sovereignty.

The struggle for peace is fundamental. It is the most important struggle right now for the defense of Colombian workers and especially for campesino, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities.

1. Portafolio (2009) “Colombia tendría la tierra más cara de la región, según estudio de la SAC”, 30 de octubre de 2009.

2. DNP (2010) “Bases del Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2010-2014: Prosperidad para todos”. Bogotá: Departamento Nacional de Planeación, p. 172.

3. Discurso en el congreso del la SAC el 8 de noviembre de 2001.

4. Gobierno de Colombia. “Plan Colombia: plan para la paz, la prosperidad y el fortalecimiento del estado”, 8 de marzo de 2000.

5. Grupo del Banco Mundial. Colombia. “Banco Mundial aprueba préstamo por US$30 millones para mejorar la productividad rural”, 21 de agosto de 2007.

6. Forero, Jaime et al. 2013. “La eficiencia económica de los grandes, medianos y pequeños productores agrícolas colombiano”; EfiAgrícola.


The Case of Hassan Diab: a 3-part podcast series


This is a 3-part podcast series on the case of Hassan Diab, a Lebanese-Canadian sociology professor extradited from Canada and currently in a French jail, accused of a bombing that happened in Paris in 1980.

Part 1 looks at the bombing of the synagogue at Rue Copernic in 1980 – the turn French investigators made from suspicion of the extreme-right anti-semitic terrorism to suspicion of “middle eastern terrorism”.

Part 2 looks at the way French investigators created a story about Hassan Diab to try to match the bombing – the perils of using intelligence as evidence.

Part 3 looks at why Canada handed Hassan Diab over to France – the nature and price of Canadian diplomacy.

The Ossington Circle Episode 7: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 1 of 3

The Ossington Circle Episode 8: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 2 of 3

The Ossington Circle Episode 9: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 3 of 3


Three Lessons this Leftist Takes from Trump’s Victory

I have been surprised by two electoral events in a few months: Trump’s election victory and the Colombian referendum on the peace accords. Both votes were very close, had low participation rates, and were expected to go the other way. If I were a closer watcher of British politics, I would no doubt have been equally surprised by the Brexit vote. In trying to learn from my own errors of analysis, I have come to these conclusions.

1. This is a world of bubbles.

One important and constant argument made on the left is for the need for independent media. The reason we believe in devoting resources and energy to creating and supporting independent media is to try to reduce our dependence for information on analysis on corporate media sources. Whether those sources support Democrats or Republicans, whether they are liberal or conservative, their corporate values and their business models trump the political considerations of their journalists or editors.

We used to focus our analysis of media bias against the corporate, agenda-setting media and especially their flagship newspaper, namely the New York Times. The NYT would receive the most criticism, not because it was the most biased, because there have always been many outlets to the right of it, but because it had the most influence. With the decline of newspapers and more and more people getting their information from different media – TV, social media, other web sources – audiences fragmented.

That fragmentation process is now complete. The agenda-setting media set agendas for only one bloc of Americans. Another bloc, the one that just elected Trump, uses a different set of media – one with its own set of assumptions and biases.

So my daily media routine goes like this: I use a carefully curated Twitter feed, following journalists and writers that I like and trust. When I have analyzed what I end up reading via Twitter, it seemed to me that I was clicking a lot of links to The Guardian, The Intercept, and Al Jazeera.

I make a daily round of outlets that I like and contribute to – Znet, TeleSUR, Ricochet, rabble, and some foreign outlets like El Tiempo in Colombia. I avoid material that depresses me except when I’m doing direct research on a topic. Because I don’t like to be made miserable constantly, I also look for news that is already presented with some analysis or even comedically – like John Oliver’s show. Because I actually want to write and do things, I don’t have time for much more than this or I would be consuming news all day.

In other words, I live in a bubble of my own selection. Being in that bubble is helpful to me because I know I have a community of people who I respect, who are like-minded and I get to spend time reading their insights. But left media outlets don’t have systematic surveying of every part of the US. For that kind of resourced, comprehensive coverage, I looked to the corporate media for insight – the NYT, CNN, etc. I relied on their news and their polling and tried to build my own analysis from there. And consequently, I was completely wrong.

I don’t think that there’s some alternative like scanning every bubble or spending lots of time interacting with media that supported Trump. You can get insights from inside your bubble. Arlie Russell Hochschild did serious research on what was driving support for Trump, and delivered it straight into my bubble on Democracy Now. Michael Moore predicted a Trump victory. The starting point though has to be that there is very little that forms a common basis for a national conversation – there are several different conversations going on with different assumptions and starting points. Fox News and Clear Channel on the one hand and the NYT and MSNBC on the other are all corporate media, but their audiences don’t understand each other and underestimate each other.

2. The poll that matters is the election.

Campaign strategists and voters relied on polls, and the polls were wrong. Politicians use polls to try to campaign scientifically, focusing attention where they can make gains according to how they are polling in the elections. But the polls are pseudo-science. In the last three elections I have followed closely (Canada 2015, Colombia referendum, and this last US election) I had a completely incorrect idea of what was going to happen because I relied on the polls.

With everybody, politicians and public alike, watching the polls, the election becomes more like a pseudoscientific exercise about watching percentage points go up and down and less like a public conversation about politics, policies, and laws.

3. The conservative base is not growing.

In Canada 2015, Stephen Harper lost the election with nearly the same number of votes (5.6 million) with which he won a majority in 2010 (5.8 million). Trump won the presidency in 2016 with 60.3 million votes, while Romney lost in 2012 with 60.9 million. In both countries the conservative base is not growing, but slowly shrinking. When they lose it is not because their base grows, but because the other side gets more votes (in the cases of Trudeau and Obama, a lot more votes).

Obama (2008, 2012) and Trudeau (2015) were able to generate enthusiasm that Clinton was not. Perhaps Sanders would have generated that kind of enthusiasm, but he did not win the nomination. Many leftists who want substantive moves towards greater equality and peace were excited about Sanders, but neither Obama nor Trudeau really promised such moves. They won anyway. The Democratic Party might not see a move to the left as the best strategy after this loss.

Trump may have won by promising to make America great again, but he is incapable of solving or even understanding any of the problems we face. Solutions for environmental, social, and international crises will have to come from the left. Surviving the Trump presidency will be a challenge.

Independence of thought will be an important survival skill.

No to Peace in Colombia?

In the four years that it took to negotiate this peace deal, Colombia has been moving inexorably towards October 2, the day that the people could have their say about the deal that would end the five-decade long war. The polls predicted an easy win for the “yes” side. The government’s negotiators and the guerrillas (FARC) campaigned for a strong “yes” vote. This was the best deal that could be had, they said.

There are around 34 million Colombians eligible to vote out of a population of around 48 million. My own prediction was that about half of that would vote in the referendum and around 70% of them would vote “yes”.

But the ‘No’ won with 6,422,136 votes, defeating the ‘Yes’ who came in with 6,361,762. A difference of 60,374 voters. A difference of less than half a percentage point of the 12.8 million who voted. An even smaller fraction of the 21.2 million who didn’t vote.

With peace at stake, why was abstention so high? High abstention is a feature of recent elections – it was high in the 2014 election as well – with 32.9 million eligible voters in 2014, just 14.7 million voted, and only 7.8 million of those voted for the winner, President Santos.

But Santos and the peace bloc weren’t able to get that number to vote “yes”. What happened?

The polls predicting an easy “yes” victory may have played a role. Why would “yes” voters feel the need to vote if the outcome was a foregone conclusion? The “no” side, by contrast, was mobilized by the ever-polarizing ex-President and war candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez.

The areas most affected by the war voted “yes”, while most of the cities voted “no” (Bogota and Cali, however, voted “yes”). Hurricane Matthew may have played a role, since the Caribbean Coast has been severely affected by the war and was expected to be a “yes” stronghold.

Disenchantment with the process played a role. After four years of negotiations, the people were being asked to show up to rubber-stamp a process the parameters of which they did not have a say in setting. Most of them chose not to show up at all, and half of them voted not to give the rubber stamp. Though Colombia’s social movements voted “yes”, they had critiques of the process – that the war against the people would continue under this peace, that the economic model had been left untouched, that their voices were heard only in tokenistic ways at the table. These feelings, and not just the right-wing opposition organized by Uribe, may have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for the “yes” side.

Before despairing of eternal conflict, however, let us clarify what this result was and was not.

It is certainly not a mandate for war. At a virtual tie (50.23% no, 49.76% yes) and with almost twice as many abstainers as voters, this can only be read as a sign of division and a lack of consensus, not the unequivocal statement of a vengeful electorate.

It is not driving FARC straight back into the jungle – certainly not right away. FARC immediately communicated that they view this result as a sign that they must work even harder for peace, and reiterated that they will continue to use only words as their weapons in the days ahead. The cease-fire stands. The negotiators will be back in Cuba this week.

President Santos walked out of the palace to a spontaneous demonstration of people chanting “We Want Peace! Not One Step Back!” and told them, and the media that he would continue to work for peace and that the peace process would continue to move forward. His next step was to call a meeting of all political parties to find a consensus process to move forward. It is unfortunate but inevitable that Uribe’s spoiler party will have to be a part of this process.

The most likely way forward will be to try to make adjustments to the accords that will make it acceptable to at least a substantial number of the “no” campaigners and try to pass them. The “no” side’s main issues were with the “transitional justice” proposals for guerrillas who had committed crimes, with some of the land reform and redistribution proposals, and with the conversion of FARC into a political party. Unfortunately these were also the key points making the deal acceptable to FARC – so the work of making the adjustments will not be straightforward or easy.

One of the campaigners for the peace deal, liberal former senator Piedad Cordoba, tried to find a silver lining, telling TeleSUR that voters had given Colombians an opportunity to dialogue again. Perhaps the “yes” side took the support of the people for granted. As the process moves forward after this turn, proponents of peace are unlikely to forget this hard lesson.

Free Homa Hoodfar

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 26/16: Homa Hoodfar was released from prison.

At the end of August, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to six Latin American countries: Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and Venezuela. On what was mainly a business tour, Zarif discussed megaprojects like the Grand Interoceanic canal. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said that “Iran has such a position that it can pick its political friends and trade partners and does not have to cooperate with a specific country or region in the world.” After the successful diplomatic conclusion of the nuclear agreement last year, Iran is pursuing a foreign policy to break the isolation that the US has sought to impose on it.

Good for Iran. The economic sanctions did nothing but harm and those in the US and elsewhere who fantasize about war with the country, after so many decades of destruction in the region, should be made to wait in frustration. Latin American countries who have suffered so much under imperialism have every reason to forge closer relations. And businesses like Boeing, currently hammering out a multi-billion dollar (perhaps $25 billion) deal with Iran for passenger planes, have no special reason to not do business with Iran, despite attempts by US legislators to stop the deal.

In recent decades, as efforts to demonize Iran in the West have proceeded, sensible people have stepped forward to try to point out some basic truths: Iran is a vast, diverse country of nearly 80 million people; These people cannot be reduced to racist caricatures about Islam; From a foreign policy perspective, Iran has good reasons to want stability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; Western cooperation with Iran could help the region, while demonization can only do more damage.

People with an even deeper knowledge of Iran published scholarship that undermined these caricatures and stereotypes. Homa Hoodfar is one such scholar. Hoodfar is a 65-year old Iranian-Canadian dual citizen and professor at Concordia University in Montreal. A quick look at her publications shows nuanced research and careful analysis, presenting specifics of what women in the region are actually doing and the decisions they make, rather than blanket statements and polemics. Her fellow scholar, Sherene Razack, describes Hoodfar’s research in some detail in a Globe and Mail article.

Her imprisonment occurred on one of her frequent visits to the country in February 2016. Her plan was to visit family and conduct some archival research. In March, her place was raided, her passports and belongings confiscated. She spent from March to June being interrogated, and on June 6, she was imprisoned. She has been in solitary confinement. Her health is deteriorating, and she has been hospitalized. There has still been no charge, only a newspaper article on June 24 claiming that Hoodfar was “dabbling in feminism and security matters.”

The idea that this 65-year old ethnographic scholar was “dabbling in security matters” is preposterous. As for “dabbling in feminism”, that is no crime even in Iranian law. Writing in The Guardian, Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan has pointed out that “Hoodfar’s treatment contradicts Islamic legal principles. In an Islamic system of criminal justice, the accused are innocent until proved guilty, and are entitled to certain rights including access to counsel and an adequate defence, freedom from torture or inhumane treatment, and a fair and speedy trial.”

For many reasons, anti-imperialists want to see diplomacy replace warmongering, to see Iran’s isolation broken. But it is impossible to overlook something deeply rotten about Iran’s judicial and prison system. Iran is one of the touchstones for the mass executions of prisoners. Iran’s prison system is where another Iranian-Canadian woman, Zahra Kazemi, was tortured and murdered in 2003. British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was just sentenced to five years for supposedly trying to topple the regime. The court authorities have been violating Iran’s laws over the entire course of this case, doing end-runs around Hoodfar’s lawyer, ignoring bail requests, and keeping her in isolation.

If Iranian government officials want to hold their heads up in their diplomatic encounters in Latin America and elsewhere, they should stop tormenting a friendly 65-year old scholar and let her return to Canada. Anybody who is talking to the Iranian government about anything should impress upon them the need to immediately free Homa Hoodfar.

First published simultaneously on ZNet and