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None so silent
December 04, 2017
by Graeme Feltham
Pope Francis and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi have been deafeningly silent on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. But there is a country that has adopted a form of silent diplomacy one could argue is more egregious than that of the two aforementioned. And that country is China. And China borders with Myanmar amongst others. None so silent as those who don’t want to rock the boat, because they don’t stand to benefit from it.
But first some background to the Rohingya crisis.
It’s been in the news for some time now and the global media has highlighted the issue to the extent that audiences suffer from that media overload where the reality of the situation assumes an unreal air. A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal’s online service posted a video showing satellite images of Rohingya villages on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh razed to the ground. It’s quite something to imagine 600,000 people uprooting their very existences to relocate only with that which they can carry on their backs. It’s not something done lightly.
How did this humanitarian disaster begin? In August, a group of insurgents from the Rohingya Muslim minority attacked a number of police outposts, killing 12 security officers, citing decades of discrimination. What shocked the world was the Myanmar military’s disproportionate response. The death toll is difficult to ascertain but the Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights released a report based on interviews with 200 refugees who spoke of gang-rapes and mass killings. More than half of those spoken to had had members of their families killed.
Strangely Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, has been silent on this issue. She was detained under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010 – becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners. Suu Kyi has been heavily criticised of late for not speaking out in defence of the Rohingya. Some of the commentariat hold that her hands are effectively tied as she shares power with the military, while the military alleges that the Rohingya burnt their villages themselves. And she has implicitly stated that “there have been no conflicts since the 5th of September” while various news agencies reported smoke billowing from villages weeks later. Suu Kyi has even refused to use the term “Rohingya”.
So why her silence? Realpolitik? Realpolitik is a system of politics or principles based on pragmatic rather than moral or ideological considerations. And her silence may well echo that of China, which is already spending billions of dollars on infrastructure projects within Myanmar. This while Washington begins to pursue sanctions against Myanmar after the United States and the United Nations labelled the action against the Rohingya “a campaign of ethnic cleansing”. China, notorious for its human rights abuses, won’t want to rock the boat after its massive investment.
As for Pope Francis, some believe that his speaking out would place the minority Christians in the country in an untenable situation. Maybe there’s some truth to that.
But the commentariat has not had much to say on China’s totally abstaining from mentioning the Rohingya and China certainly doesn’t fear Myanmar. None so silent as those who don’t want to rock the boat, because they don’t stand to benefit from it.
China is widely regarded as espousing a form of state capitalism, defined as an economic system in which the state undertakes commercial (for profit) economic activity, and where the means of production are organised and managed as state-owned business enterprises, or where there is otherwise a dominance of corporatised government agencies or of publicly listed corporations in which the state has controlling shares. China is open for business.
And if ever there was a country that readily embodies realpolitik it is China. Once again realpolitik is a system of politics or principles based on pragmatic rather than moral or ideological considerations. In fact it appears that the brutal purge of the Rohingya is bringing China and Myanmar together in the face of global criticism.
All ideas of China’s ideology of a one-party state and all that entails were cast aside as Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace laureate, visited the country on Thursday, November 30, to attend a conference for international political parties hosted by China’s Communist Party.
This after a month of uncomfortable meetings with Western officials, including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Pope Francis, and having her Freedom of Oxford award stripped for her failure to criticise the military. But China is happy to embrace her.
"All ideas of China’s ideology of a one-party state and all that entails were cast aside as Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace laureate, visited the country on Thursday, November 30, to attend a conference for international political parties hosted by China’s Communist Party."
A week before Suu Kyi’s visit, Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the architect of Myanmar’s scorched-earth military campaign to eject the Rohingya, met China’s President Xi Jinping. In a show of mutual admiration, Xi described Chinese-Myanmar military relations as the “best ever”.
And why is this? Well because China is spending billions of dollars on infrastructure projects in Myanmar. And that trumps all other considerations. China is out to make money. The superpower is aggressively building a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia, where Myanmar is a prime asset, a border state with a long coastline that offers a strategic outlet to the Indian Ocean.
As US investment in Africa falters with Trump’s narcissistic Art of the Deal, already in 2011 Chinese exports to Africa amounted to $74bn. Currently, there is massive Chinese involvement with mega-projects in Africa.
A quick list illustrates this. The Coastal Railway in Nigeria is the largest ever contract awarded to a Chinese company in Africa. The project is worth $12bn. The deal was signed between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and China Railway Construction Corp on November 19 2014. China is also building a port in Bagamoyo, a coastal town in Tanzania. This project is worth $7bn and is funded by the China Merchants Holdings International. In our country, the Modderfontein New City Project is being built on the outskirts of Johannesburg. This project is worth $7bn. Chinese company Shangai Zendai is building the city which it is reported will be home to at least 10,000 Chinese citizens on completion.
The list goes on. The $3.1bn Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya. The $6bn to develop minefields in the DRC and funded by China Exim Bank. The Chad-Sudan Railway funded by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, a project worth $5.6bn. A deal signed with Africa’s biggest cement producer, Dangote Cement Plc, which is an expansion of the company into Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon and Ivory Coast. Built by China’s Sinoma International Engineering Co and worth $4.34bn. The list really is exhaustive.
None so silent as those who’ve got deals to broker. Things like humanitarian crises – with ethnic cleansing, mass killings, gang-rapes and 600,000 people fleeing atrocity – simply don’t feature. This is the price humanity pays for realpolitik. China doesn’t engage in atrocities though it is generally agreed that it tops the list of human rights abuses in its own country. (Ignoring for the moment its “invasion” of Tibet in 1950 led to the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the reprisals for which involved the killing of 87,000 Tibetans by the Chinese count, according to a Radio Lhasa broadcast of October 1 1960. But that is a story for another day.)
And we can bring realpolitik home too. Between 2009 and 2014 the South African government denied the Dalai Lama a visa to enter the country. The last time in October of 2014 the Tibetan leader had been invited to attend the 14th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Cape Town. The local organising committee represented foundations associated with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk and Albert Luthuli.
Why? Realpolitik. Anyone can join the dots. South Africa has never had much to gain broadly in economic terms, certainly those related to infrastructure projects, from Tibet which China insists is part of it anyway and not autonomous.
In February 2014 the then US president Barack Obama incurred China’s wrath when he met with the exiled Tibetan leader. But the US is also a superpower and South Africa is not. China is open for business and African countries simply can’t afford to denounce a superpower while it pours billions of dollars into their infrastructure. It’s called realpolitik.
Peace has come at last to Zimbabwe?
November 18, 2017
By Graeme Feltham
Mugabe gone? Who would have thought?
Zimbabwe has remained in South Africa’s national consciousness for decades now, like a prickly pear thorn in your upper palette that you can’t help tonguing. An example is how former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration is negatively memorialised for its HIV/Aids policy as well as its “silent diplomacy” regarding Zimbabwe.
When we woke on Wednesday morning as South Africans we were all pricked by the alleged coup. As the removal of Robert Mugabe played out on media platforms globally, it was said that radio stations were playing liberation songs and that normal broadcasting had been suspended. A wag might wonder aloud if Stevie Wonder’s reggae-imbued monster-hit Master Blaster was playing with its line “Peace has come at last to Zimbabwe”.
Reports of nervousness in the general populace continue to filter through after the military secured Mugabe’s residence and Zimbabwe’s parliament, broadcasting stations and other key national sites. And this nervousness is exacerbated by long queues outside of banks and ATMs. So somehow another line in the same song “You will be jammin’ till the break of dawn” does not ring true.
Mugabe’s wife, nicknamed Gucci Grace for her extravagant spending habits, has been blamed for being pivotal in her husband’s downfall. It is believed she bent his ear to sack former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa a week or so ago. The latter then fled to South Africa, but reportedly returned home on Tuesday. Mnangagwa belongs to the Lacoste faction that has little time for Gucci Grace.
While the military has insisted on the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation’s television station that there has been no coup and that the army is “targeting criminals” around Mugabe, the head of the influential Zimbabwe War Veterans Association, Chris Mutsvangwa, called the move a “bloodless coup”, adding “we salute the patriotic and gallant forces of Zimbabwe for once again coming to the decisive rescue of the nation”. The veterans are an integral part of the Lacoste faction.
Though Robert Mugabe did turn the country from Africa’s “bread basket to its basket case” it is definitely premature to think that it is the “end of an error” as Zimbabwe blogger Alex Magaisa has commented. This last phrase is already a cliché along with that alluding to a basket case.
Yes, Mugabe is responsible for the torture and deaths of thousands, in the process turning the Zimbabwe dollar into a non-currency and breaking global hyper-inflation records and he is infamous for land grabs – all of which prompted the Guardian to publish an article yesterday with the headline “Mugabe’s reign over Zimbabwe became a byword for misrule”. Yes, Mugabe did rule the country with an iron fist for 37 years. No, he didn’t do so alone. He did so as the leader of Zanu-PF.
As is often the case, the cult of personality is blinding. Mnangagwa, the recently fired vice-president, is the Zanu-PF man widely regarded to be Mugabe’s successor. Mnangagwa earned the nickname “the crocodile” during the 1970s guerrilla war and played a pivotal role in the massacre of more than 20,000 Zimbabweans during an alleged anti-Mugabe uprising in Matabeleland in the 1980s. The crocodile further propped up Mugabe’s dictatorship for years by rigging elections and “dealing with” (a euphemism) political opponents.
The main reason he is touted as our neighbouring country’s next president is that, apart from having the backing of the influential war veterans’ movement, he has recently been making all the right noises regarding investment and economic development in Zimbabwe. He has reinvented himself as a business-friendly prospect for president, courting companies along the way. In comparison with Mugabe, he is regarded as visionary.
Forgetting his pivotal role in the Matabeleland massacre for the moment and his violent quelling of opposition, he has been accused, along with military generals, of siphoning off billions of dollars’ worth of diamond profits. These are the same lost profits that have contributed to Zimbabwe’s current liquidity crisis. And the people on the ground know about this. Zimbabweans are a well-informed populace despite their brutal oppression. Hence the anxiety now on the streets of Harare and the long lines snaking through the city outside banks and ATMs.
“Regardless of which candidate wins, the economic outlook will remain constrained.”
But yesterday while Zimbabwe was the hot topic for South Africa’s national discourse, something else was happening in our own backyard. It’s called the Inclusive Growth Summit and it’s been drowned out by our neighbours’ goings-on. Speaking there, political commentator Professor Steven Friedman warned of idealising the ANC’s elective conference in December in the light of a narrative of “the goodies chasing away the baddies” assuming Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (and not President Jacob Zuma’s choice Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) wins the party leadership.
Friedman said: “The expectation is that we are on the edge of a massive watershed where one faction wins and we will then be clear and face the economic consequences. This is absolutely wrong.”
He said that regardless of which faction of the ANC emerged victorious at the conference, the months after the conference would be characterised by the two sides bargaining on a number of national issues and that no one faction would have free rein to manoeuvre as it wished.
Speaking at the same summit yesterday, Hugo Pienaar, of the Bureau for Economic Research, said: “Regardless of which candidate wins, the economic outlook will remain constrained.”
This is interesting stuff because the “When Zuma is gone” narrative reminds me of Mugabe’s ousting. The ANC is to South Africa what Zanu-PF is to Zimbabwe. They are both renowned, though not by all, as their respective country’s liberation movements. The belief that “everything will come right” after Zuma goes (assuming his faction doesn’t take ownership of the ANC) is myopic in the extreme, as Prof Friedman has pointed out. This view would have us believe the patronage network would disappear overnight is just as short-sighted as ignoring that Zanu-PF’s Mnangagwa and Zimbabwe’s military generals have been implicated in siphoning off billions of dollars (that’s US dollars) in diamond profits.
Mugabe may be gone but surely it would be naïve to expect Mnangagwa – the man who oversaw the Matabeleland massacre - to tolerate real opposition either. It certainly appears it would be premature to sing “Peace has come at last to Zimbabwe”.
See Nasya Smith's article in the home section Who is Emmerson Mnangagwa?
Fascists hide when it suits them and get in your face when it doesn’t suit you
October 30, 2017
By Graeme Feltham
Fascists hide when it suits them and get in your face when it doesn’t suit you. And just to be clear, the word fascism applies to those who, according to Google, believe in a way of ruling that advocates total control of the people. My Latin teacher spoke about how in the Roman era the patricians used to be accompanied by a robust slave that walked with a symbolic bundle of rods.
The Latin word “fasces” alluded to a bundle of rods. So when I use the word fascist I mean someone who believes the people are one body that must be controlled by the government with absolute force. Much as the Roman patricians from a specific era were the masters of the plebs and the latter were never allowed to forget it.
A few weeks ago neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer, that often singles out Jewish people for harassment posted a set of “tips” for alt-right leader Richard Spencer’s talk at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “Go to the event, preferably as a group, dressed normally, no uniform or racist anything,” neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin writes, “No white polo or khakis, no flags or signs, if you’ve got Nazi tattoos cover them up.”
Fascist movements throughout time have hidden when it suits them and gotten in your face when it doesn’t suit you. Skinheads, with bomber jackets, bovver boots, Levis with white T-shirts and black braces are too be found in all European countries and America. Whether in Sweden of France they swap boots for suits as soon as they gain a toehold in whatever parliament. This has been going on for some time now. Associated are skinheads in America who regularly chant “Heil Trump”.
Interestingly, skinheads were not originally associated with racism. Skinheads as a movement were started in the mid-60s in England as a working-class movement refusing to opt for the flamboyant, fancy dress of the Mods and Teddy Boy youth movements before them. These skinheads embraced working-class fashion: cropped hair, meant-to-last shoes and boots, white T-shirts and worn Levis.
They also lent from the cultural leanings of their working-class West Indian neighbours, wearing trilby hats and crombie jackets, peg-legged striped suits and a love for ska, the Jamaican music that mixed Latin beats and American jazz melodies and was the forerunner of modern reggae. The original skinheads loved to dance to these ska beats, often frequented all-black nightclubs and had, by the end of the decade, several Jamaican “skinhead reggae” records and bands they loyally supported.
Racism became a part of the scene in the 1970s driven by the poor economic climate in England. Many neo-Nazi groups began recruiting the skinheads, most of whom were in low-paying jobs or on the dole. Playing on the traditional nationalistic ideas of the working class, the fascist groups did their best to turn the skinheads against their immigrant neighbours. (A ploy that is making a thumping resurgence globally nowadays.) Anyway many confused souls left the skinhead movement and joined the National Front and other neo-Nazi groups in England.
Forward wind to South Africa in early 1994 where I came into contact with the English skinhead kids whose right-wing parents were all members of the England-based National Front. I met them when I attended a court case where two gay punk lovers (the kind of punks who sport Mohicans and Sid Vicious sneers) had laid a charge against a bunch of far-right skins after they had put a revolver into the one punk’s mouth while beating up his lover. Fascists hide when it suits them and get in your face when it doesn’t suit you.
At the court case the skinheads were sober (alcohol being their predominant drug) and dressed in suits that covered their Nazi tattoos, while the punks were dishevelled from a rough night before and still stoned with smudged black eyeliner. (Even their Mohicans were floppy and untended.) The punks were laughed out of court by the judge and the skinhead lawyer, while the prosecutor knew a lost cause when he saw one.
Word was the same skinhead gang had thrown a molotov cocktail through a mixed couple’s window in Yeoville amongst a myriad other heinous and obnoxious behaviour. But had never been nabbed for any of their criminal activities. Fascists hide when it suits them and get in your face when it doesn’t suit you.
I knew about the court case because my girlfriend at the time was a friend of one of the beaten-up punks. After the case was summarily dispensed with, I approached the skinheads and requested an interview. Having seen me speaking with the punks they were wary but after I removed my cap (under which was a cropped head looking much like theirs) they granted my request. I duly bought a case of beers to loosen their tongues. But that wasn’t really necessary, once we were on their home turf everything they uttered was, without exception, twaddle.
Fascists hide when it suits them and get in your face when it doesn’t suit you. And nowhere was this more the case than in their leader’s Yeoville flat. The entire place was colour coded with three colours only. Red, white and black. From the huge flag of the AWB (Afrikaanse Weerstandsbeweging) flag having pride of place on the wall, to the duvets on the beds (red with black pillowcases) to the curtains, carpets, to their attire and everything else, I think the only picture that broke the mould was a sepia photograph of KKK head honcho David Duke.
We drank beer and they spoke. After about the third or fourth beer I felt a tad belligerent after hearing all the nonsense they were sprouting, but I looked down at their three pairs of bovver boots and thought better of saying anything that would lead to me being stomped. Reminded myself I was there as a journalist.
Fascism permeated their lives to the Nth degree. Even the music they listened to was by a fascist skinhead band called Screwdriver. They played me a song called “Hold on South Africa” which, this being the beginning of 1994 and months before our first free elections, was an exhortation of sorts for whites to remain in nationalistic power. They added their own ignorant take to the ignorance that was the song’s lyrics. They said a lot of other silly things too that I duly noted down.
"At the court case the skinheads were sober ... and dressed in suits that covered their Nazi tattoos, while the punks were dishevelled from a rough night before and still stoned with smudged black eyeliner."
A few days later the brilliant bilingual anti-apartheid Vrye Weekblad – with Max du Preez as editor – approached me about the article. I wrote it for them. That was their second-last edition because a white police general, Lothar Neethling, had sued them and the legal costs had driven them to bankruptcy. The good general had been suing them for printing that he issued poison to security police to kill activists. I have no doubt of the veracity of the allegations. Vrye Weekblad revealed the nefarious goings-on at the then unknown and later notorious Vlakplaas, a farm southwest of Pretoria, was part of PW Botha’s Total Strategy to disable opponents to the apartheid regime. The security police apparatus, Section C1, operated on the farm – their modus operandi being assassination, kidnapping, poison and execution.
Their disaffected commander, Captain Dirk Coetzee, spilled the beans to the Vrye Weekblad, which carried the front-page story of Vlakplaas in 1989. Up until the article Vlakplaas was an unknown entity. Fascists hide when it suits them and get in your face when it doesn’t suit you.
Later in 1994, Vlakplaas Colonel Eugene de Kock was sentenced to two life sentences and an additional 212 years, for charges ranging from homicide to corruption. Anyway, the point is Neethling had sued the Vrye Weekblad into bankruptcy because they couldn’t prove the allegations against him. Fascists hide when it suits them and get in your face when it doesn’t suit you.
Anyway, my story on the skinhead movement was printed early in 1994 and the pic on the front page was the back of a friend’s cropped hair with a Nazi swastika carved out into it. It was Vrye Weekblad’s second last edition. When the skinheads read the story they sent me death threats for a year. Even though I’d just printed things that they’d said it made them look as stupid as they were. I remember the subhead was “We don’t just hate n****** because they’re ugly”.
And so I got death threats.
Though being cowards, like all bullies, they never confronted me in daylight on the streets of Yeoville except to utter threats. I knew that if I they found me alone late at night it would lead to behaviour aimed at hastening my demise. I got paid R200 for that Vrye Weekblad story. But I didn’t mind because they were bankrupt. But the skins stayed on my case for a year. They would taunt all and sundry with Hitler salutes whenever in that Yeoville hideout, Ba Pita.
Fascists hide when it suits them and get in your face when it doesn’t suit you.
Buddhism and violence go together like a horse and a nuclear submarine
October 16, 2017
By Graeme Feltham
Growing up in that industrial wasteland I called home, my favourite uncle would always say “never argue about politics or religion”. Usually at the birthday party of one of the relatives in my extended family that numbered over 50 and of which the men worked in factories in Uitenhage - the South African Railways, Volkswagen, Dorbyl, Good Year and the like. Those parties were invariably alcohol-fuelled, so my Uncle Noel’s advice was prudent to be sure.
Nowadays, I’m a Tibetan Buddhist, in that I took refuge in what is known as Vajrayana in 2000. This is an admission that I am loathe to make in the public sphere as in the various workplaces - newspapers - where I’ve made my bread and butter because I’ve found that the perception is that I should then be calm of mind, tranquil in spirit and measured in tone much like His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama. Truth is I’m a rather lazy sod and an irritable one at that. Whatever the case, why I mention I’m a Buddhist here is that, flawed as I am in terms of Buddhist practice, I fail to even begin to comprehend the brutal behaviour of the Buddhist security cluster in Myanmar in relation to what has been dubbed the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslims in that country by the global commentariat.
I am not here or at any other place interested in comparing religions, finding that to be an odious practice for which I feel underqualified. But I do know from general knowledge that Christianity and Islam (and others) have wrought much violence on the world. For the former think of the Spanish inquisition and the Crusades among a myriad other violent acts and wars. Similarly, Islam has been party to heinous and wide-scale violence that goes far beyond the modern-day trend in Islamist terror of which 9/11 was, arguably, the launching pad. Still from my limited knowledge of Christian and Islamic texts, I know that they contain a measure of ambivalence regarding that nebulous realm that encompasses violence.
The Bible comprises two books – the Old and the New Testament. The Old Testament is chock-a-block with violence as in the “smiting” of Philistines and other tribes. The New Testament has a “turn the other cheek” flavour but Christ did take a whip to the moneylenders in a temple if my early childhood recollection of Anglican Sunday school serves me.
Here in my home country, the Bible was used to justify Apartheid on a number of fronts. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where God separated humanity into different races, with different languages was for the Dutch Reformed dominees (who played their part in propping up the Nationalist government) proof positive that people are divided and identified by race, and more, that those differences trump similarities. Acts 17:26 states: “From our one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the time of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” From this the Dutch Reformed theologians extrapolated that Bantustans were given the thumbs-up, as it were, by the Bible and, therefore, God. They took it to be irrevocably true that South Africa’s different races should be separated, live apart; hence the word Apartheid.
The Bible was used as a justification of Apartheid ideology to further entrench and assert the dominance of the political and socioeconomic interests of whites. Just as scriptures have so often been adopted throughout human history to entrenched the interests of the hegemony. And the cherry on the top of this particular sponge cake was the reading taken from the book of Romans 13.1-7: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment …” it continues in similar vein. This kind of thinking was widespread, alluding to the diktats of the state as being instituted by God and therefore to oppose the prevailing ideology, in this case Apartheid, was to actively denounce the word of God.
Scriptures – irrespective of religion – have throughout recorded history been used as implements to enforce the sovereign power that pertained in specific sociohistorical periods, and indeed by the revolutionary forces that sought to overturn that hegemony. (Anglican Archbishop Tutu and Dutch Reformed Minister Beyers Naude drew on different passages in the Bible in their fight against Apartheid. Naude and his family were ostracised and he was chucked out of their church, summarily finding himself on the streets without a home or a salary. But I digress.)
As for Islam, there are arguments for different readings of the Qu’ran. Of course, in the past decade or two this religion has entered the shared global discourse as scholars, academics, laypeople and the media debate (usually vociferously) whether Islam is a peaceful religion or a call to arms. It is true that there are more than a hundred verses in the Qu’ran that could be read as sanctioning violence.
A few examples, “Then fight in the cause of Allah, and know that Allah heareth and knoweth all things.” And “fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing that is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not.” And a last verse from the Qu’ran: “Let those fight in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him we shall bestow a vast reward.” This last one has been read by some as serving as motivation for Islamist suicide bombers.
The long-running and hot-tempered debate around Islam in the western and other milieus shows no signs of abating in the foreseeable future. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought. The one is adamant that Islamists that read in the Qu’ran a call to arms traduce the faith and are prey to dubious motivations. The other insists that the core beliefs of Islam prompt the faithful to take up arms in a fight for a world based on Sharia law.
Of the latter view, is new-atheist and public intellectual Sam Harris, who insists that widely held Muslim views are drivers of violent behaviour. In his words: “It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam. This is not to say we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Qu’ran. The only reason Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to us is because the fundamentals of Islam are a threat to us.”
And then you have the view espoused by former Christian nun and bestselling author, Karen Armstrong, who holds that terrorism has “nothing to do with Muhammad, any more that the Crusades had anything to do with Jesus. There is nothing in Islam that is more violent than Christianity. All religions have been violent, including Christianity.” She argues her case, saying that in a Gallup poll, 93% of the Muslims, said the 9/11 attacks were not justified, and the reasons they gave were religious, the 7% who supported the 9/11 attacks proffered political reasons based on the violence Islamic countries had been subjected to.
Again, this is not to dis either Christianity or Islam but to point out that their scriptures are open to ambiguous readings, that action flowing from their texts are open to debate.
Still, while we’re on the subject of Islam it’s interesting that in 2015, The Global Burden of Armed Violence found that between 2007 and 2012 for every person killed in a war or by terror, seven were murdered, as in being the victims of homicides. Most of the time murder is a far greater threat to human existence than organised warfare. So it follows that if there was a greater propensity to violence in Muslim countries, their homicide rates should be the highest on the globe. The truth is the opposite is true: the higher the percentage of Muslims in a society, the lower the homicide rate.
In 2011, a major study by political scientist M Steven Fish of the University of California in Berkeley, presented data showing that between 1994 and 2007, homicide rates in the Muslim world were approximately half the homicide rate in the US.
Further, the latest homicide stats from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime reveal that for every murder perpetrated in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state, seven people are murdered in the US. And these studies results were released before the recent Las Vegas horror shooting spree.
Back to Myanmar. Accounts vary but somewhere close on 90% of the Burmese population subscribe to Theravadan Buddhism. Theravada is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha's teachings.
And on this there can be no dispute. The Buddha’s teachings and scriptures forbid all forms of violence, even in extreme cases of self-defence. What follows are words of the Buddha: “One is not called noble who harms living beings. By not harming living beings one is called noble.” And: “May all beings have happy minds.” And this: “Radiate boundless love towards the entire world – above, below and across – unhindered, without ill will, or enmity.” And this one: “As I am, so are these. As are these, so am I. Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor get others to kill.” And then there’s this one: “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause others to kill.”
And this is where the glaring contradictions of the Myanmar military forces and authorities come to the fore as they don’t in any of the other violent acts perpetrated in the name of any number of religions. Nowhere did the Buddha expound on causing harm – he unequivocally taught the eschewing of all harmful actions even for the purposes of self-defence, even committing physical, psychological, mental or other harm for self-preservation was strictly verboten by Gautama Buddha. And the words of Gautama Buddha are the sole inspiration for Theravadan Buddhism.
This is not to advocate that Buddhists are a more peaceful lot than any other (the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar being the most recent argument to the contrary), but it is true that Buddhist scriptures can in no way be interpreted to instigate harm against another person or group of others.
And yet we still have Myanmar – where close to 90% of the population is Theravadan Buddhist – and the Rohingya Muslims are widely reviled.
It’s not a small thing when 500,000 people uproot themselves and flee as refugees, in this case, to neighbouring Bangladesh.
There is a surprising dearth of reportage in the global media regarding this incongruity between Theravadan Buddhism espoused by most in Myanmar and the hostility and, indeed brutality, directed against its Muslim population that number 1.1 million. I suspect that “real news” journalists would rather not get mired in the nebulous realm of comparative religion.
But the Buddhists in Myanmar are not alone in espousing violence. In Thailand there have been virulent calls for monastic Buddhist violence. In the 1970s monks, specifically Phra Kittiwuttho, argued that killing communists did not violate any Buddhist precepts. Thai Buddhist violence flared up again in 2004.
And in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism reared its head at various periods in history, including at the beginning of the 20th century, usually against minorities, especially the Tamils. Most recently were anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka in 2014. Muslims and their property were attacked by Sinhalese Buddhist in a number of towns. At least four people were killed and 80 injured, while hundreds were made homeless following attacks on homes, shops, factories, mosques and a nursery.
And there’ve been incidences of other Buddhist militancy (an oxymoron if ever there was one, much like Groucho Marx saying military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.)
Even with the Chinese “invasion” of Tibet (invasion in quotes because that opens a whole different can of worms), there were Buddhists who formed armed resistance. My personal take on Tibet is that prior to the invasion Buddhism flourished, because Tibetan society was homogeneous, because everyone was Buddhist. And here comes the rub …
Is it possible for a country to adhere to the words of the Buddha in a fractured society? I remember a friend of mine once saying “Nationalism is a flag and an enemy.” While George Orwell was of the opinion: “Nationalism is power hunger, tempered by self-deception.” Both these quotes are applicable to Myanmar, where the military campaign is popular with the Buddhist majority, where there is little sympathy for the Rohingya and where Buddhist nationalism has surged.
Can Buddhism ever be put into practice unless in a homogeneous society – an entity that no longer exists anywhere? Can one live according to Buddhist principles in any country, while being a nationalist?
Maung Zarni, a Burmese democracy advocate, human rights campaigner and research fellow at the London School of Economics, speaking about Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, has said: “No Buddhist can be nationalistic. There is no country for Buddhists. I mean, no such thing as ‘me’. ‘my’ community, ‘my’ country, ‘my race’ or even ‘my faith’.
That’s a lot to take in. But the essence of Buddhism is that everyone has the Buddha nature. And that’s according to the Dalai Lama, amongst other Buddhist lamas. So to harm anyone is to harm yourself, and, consequently, is to harm the Buddha.
A Buddhist country is an anomaly. The reports vary – but somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 Rohingya Muslims have recently died in Myanmar. Make that been murdered.
Ashin Wirathu who appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “The Face of Buddhist Terror” proclaims that he is not responsible for fomenting violence against the Rohingya. In a Guardian article he uses the analogy of a watchdog, saying the dog barks as a warning if an intruder comes into the house. He likens himself to such a dog, warning, merely warning, others about the Muslims.
On allegations that Muslim women have been raped by the military, Wirathu says: “Impossible. Their bodies are too disgusting.” Sounds far removed from the words attributed to Guatama Buddha. And this is not to mention the more than 200 Muslim villages that have been razed and, of course, the mass killings.
This thing Buddhism. It can be lived as a personal philosophy, but can it be put into practice as a nation-state? As Islam can and is in Iran, among other countries? The words of the Buddha are very clear – if you are to be attacked you may not defend yourself.
I started this missive with a little bit about my own stumbling Buddhist journey. After a serious motorbike accident in 2010 I needed to use a cane to walk. In one mugging attempt, I used the same cane to clobber the would-be mugger.
As I said, I’m a flawed Buddhist, but how, for example, can a country defend itself against another along Buddhist terms? How can a country that subscribes to Theravadan Buddhism even have a military wing? From the earlier quotes taken from the Buddha’s mouth - how can you take an oath to shoot another if any given situation calls for it? It’s simply not possible. A Buddhist in any military stands a chance of being sentenced to death for treason, for not shooting an “enemy”.
The violence in Myanmar is tribal and it is ethnic. It isn’t Buddhist in origin because that’s an anachronism. It’s simply not feasible to run a country (or a nation-state) along Buddhist lines. That’s a pipe dream. Whatever is happening in Myanmar is connected to Buddhism only in name. What is happening there is rooted in an existential fear and suspicion of the Other. But that’s a different story.
Words can be weapons
October 08, 2017
By Graeme Feltham
In October 2017, the Guardian ran a story that famous comedian Chris Rock had used the n-word a few days ago on the celebrated, in the UK anyway, Graham Norton Show.
The writer of the story, Edward Adoo, who is also a DJ and broadcaster, called it “a disgrace and an insult to black Britons”. Adoo describes the context thus: “Rock was talking about being discovered by Eddie Murphy, then about a white girl who met Murphy and wanted to kiss him as she had never kissed a black man before in her life.
He then mentioned what Murphy said to the girl: ‘You can’t start at the top – you’ve got to kiss some of these broke n*****s first.’”
The asterisks are those of the Guardian. Some words can’t be printed. More on Rock’s usage of the word later.
There’s no doubt though that words can be potent weapons. Throughout recorded history, words have even been used as weapons of mass destruction.
And that’s no exaggeration.
And in our everyday life, words can hurt you to the core, to the bone. That old chestnut “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” just doesn’t stick.
The two most obvious hurtful racist words are the k-word and the n-word. Forgetting for now the almost-comedic use of the k-word in that song that arguably launched the career of South African kwaito musician and producer supremo, Arthur Mafokate.
In a time in this country’s history where no-one or politician or political party any longer publicly lays claim to racism, there have been some not-so-distant examples of the use of the k-word on Twitter.
Just a few years back in 2012 model Jessica Leeandra Dos Santos was axed from now-deceased lads mag FHM for tweeting “Just, well took on an arrogant and disrespectful k****r inside Spar.
Should have punched him, should have.” Ja-nee, foi tog, meisiekind.
Just last year, Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi posted a picture on Twitter where a black toddler was seen to be separated from her white counterparts who were being fed cupcakes. Along with the pic, Lesufi tweeted: “Let’s tackle this! Wearing jeans in case I have to jump fences.” To which some troll responded, referring to him as a “F***ing K***** pedo”.
Disturbing indeed, and that’s not even taking into account the erroneous reference to paedophilia. Lesufi duly responded: “Don’t call me with the K-word please!” to which the troll shot back: “I didn’t call you the K-word. I called you K*****. (Forgive all these asterisks but, as I said, the word is unprintable.)
In both the above cases the Twitterverse exploded with colourful patois, like a VJ commandeering a lazer machine while on some hallucinatory drug.
And that’s just on Twitter. There have been more than a few court cases resulting from the use of this ill-famed and injurious term.
Looking abroad to the US, the same applies to uses of the n-word. Though some African-American rappers use it indiscriminately, it is seen by society at large to be offensive across the colour spectrum.
It brings to mind the words of the one-and-only Muhammad Ali who, in defending his refusal to be conscripted into the Vietnam War, said:
“No Viet Cong ever called me n****r”.
Forward wind to June this year, when well-known and sometimes controversial late-night host of HBO Bill Maher used the n-word. But there is something interesting here. Let’s put it into context. He was interviewing Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican, who was talking about adults in Nebraska still dressing up for Halloween.
Then this transpired. You judge for yourself.
Maher: “I’ve got to get to Nebraska more.”
Sasse: “You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”
Maher: “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n****r.”
After which, Maher realising he was on TV immediately said he was joking and the following day issued an official apology. But things are not that simple. Seen in the context of US slave history, there was a time when the vast majority of African-Americans either worked in cotton and other plantations or in the slave-owner’s mansion as a butler or cook or cleaner or what have you.
Butlers were referred to as house n*****s and it was a position, under those dreadful circumstances and in a historically specific time, that was seen as a step up from working in “the fields” as Sasse had jokingly invited Maher to do.
So obviously while not condoning it, one could argue the comedian made an error in judgment. He was trying to shine a light on history and, in so doing, used the n-word and consequently caused much offence. Hence, his official apology (if he wanted to keep his job that is). This episode shone a further light on the powerful emotions that such words conjure up in the public imagination.
To be fair, the use of the n-word in Bill Maher’s case does not correspond to that of the white police officers repeatedly using the word n****r in what, globally, has to be one of the most watched amateur video recordings ever – the severe beating of a defenceless Rodney King.
Twenty-six years ago, George Holliday, a plumber from Argentina, captured this gruesome assault when he trained his Sony Handycam on a group of enraged policeman beating King to a bloody pulp in Los Angeles. Of course, when more than 50 blows were rained down on King on March 3 1991, the times were different, technologically speaking.
The internet was barely more than a curiosity at US colleges and used mainly for texting. Cellphones were nowhere near as advanced as iPads or Androids. Those days a cellphone looked like a brick and weighed about the same. Which makes it all the more incredible that this one incident scarred the US nation and came to be not only a defining moment but one against which incidents of other white cops beating up young black men in the US were measured. Incidentally, this remains a burning issue.
Today, the Rodney King beating would have gone viral in a matter of seconds and would have hit record views. But for Holliday, he couldn’t even broadcast the images he shot on his own. YouTube was still in the future. As were the other social media platforms we take for granted, Facebook being but one.
So the plumber took his video to Los Angeles TV station KTLA, which aired the footage and interviewed him, sparking a media frenzy. First, the film led to widespread outrage at the treatment meted out to an unarmed black man by white police officers. Later, several of the same officers were acquitted by a jury that included no black people, which in turn led to five days of rioting that tore through LA’s black neighbourhoods. In the current climate, those riots too would have gone viral with any number of people recording them on their cellphones. Technology, too, is a powerful weapon, not just words it seems.
But I digress, though for reasons that will become apparent.
One could just leave it there. The power of words and their ability to cause harm is a negative consequence of that thoughtlessness that follows from a dearth of Ubuntu.
But affirming and empowering words are every bit as potent and can be instrumental in the healing process. Taking a panoramic view, this country and its citizens are going through a protracted process of healing, which by its very nature is not a destination but an ongoing journey.
The great Muhammad Ali put it succinctly with one of his litany of incisive quotes, when he said: “It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get up.”
In the South African milieu, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) guided by the much-loved Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, attempted to get to grips with the aftermath of the horror that apartheid inflicted on the national psyche, as fractured as that psyche is.
The hearings started in 1996 and the mandate of the commission was “to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as reparation and rehabilitation”. Unfortunately, the TRC met with mixed success. Many pooh-poohed the process as having been ineffectual but doors were definitely opened and much debate ensued. For that alone it merits consideration. But what’s important here is that every one of the perpetrators of human rights violations definitely used the k-word. The word bubbles up from the underground waters of a specific mind-set.
Words inform specific mind-sets, whether positive or no. Examples of the derogatory way the word “cockroach” has been used point to the truism that derogatory terms underline and bolster inhumane mind-sets. “Cockroach” serves as a telling example of how one word can belittle a group of people, so that they come to be seen as something less than human which makes their mass murder easier for their adversarial perpetrators to execute.
Take the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that claimed close on one million lives, most taken in the most brutal manner imaginable. Prior to that the Tutsis were often, on all number of platforms, referred to as “cockroaches”. Words can be used to demean people as less than human.
And from there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to stepping on them as some would a real cockroach. Ditto for the Holocaust.
Jews in Nazi Germany were often derogated with the epithet “cockroach”. You can be sure that all six million people that died in the Nazi concentration camps were at some point referred to as “cockroaches”. The tactics of incitement and dehumanization hinge on the use of slurs. It’s not for nothing that the phrase “language is a virus” has a Wikipedia page dedicated to it.
History is littered with such cases. Just last year English TV personality and newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins referred to migrants seeking refugee status in Europe as “cockroaches”.
She gained celebrity status after appearing on Donald Trump’s reality TV show The Apprentice in 2007. From which it follows that she probably by now has a wide following on Twitter and other social media platforms.
She used the epithet “cockroaches” to describe migrants and this while Europe is in the grip of a refugee crisis. What harm? Well, as the point has been made, words can be powerful weapons, and given her huge amount of followers, who knows what nefarious consequences will ensue. Yet another episode that speaks to the importance of using word responsibly.
Dr Tracey King of Fort Hare University says that “psychologists highlight effective strategies which can be used to re-appropriate harmful slurs. Marginalized groups can reframe these terms into something positive and utilize them as an ironic self-labelling strategy. By taking control and ownership of the hateful terms (which were meant to cause offence), the intended victims are subverting that intention.”
She continues: “The way in which the term ‘queer’ has been put to use by the LGBTI community or feminists have re-appropriated the term ‘slut’ in organizing ‘slut-walk’ protests against rape culture – are both excellent examples of these strategies in action. In doing so the term loses its sting since the connotations of humiliation are usurped and turned into symbols of empowerment.”
Perhaps that’s why Chris Rock uses it. To re-appropriate it. Perhaps that’s why he used it on the Graham Norton Show over the weekend. Incidentally, Idris Elba was also on the show, and laughed at its usage. Is that why so many black rappers use the n-word? To re-appropriate it? Is that why they use it as a slanderous word and as a term of endearment? Are they re-appropriating the term? It’s a huge, ongoing debate. Don’t expect a conclusion any time soon. Actually, don’t ever expect a conclusion given the harm that racist terms have and continue to incur. And don’t expect any demographic to agree on the terms of engagement. Military lingo used purposely because words can lead to explosions.
Words can be weapons.
The thing about walls
October 02, 2017
By Graeme Feltham
“I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” Unless you’ve lived behind an all-surround and sound-proofed wall without access to any media for the past few years you know these words can only be attributed to Donald Trump.
You may not know that he said this during his candidacy announcement speech in 2015, because he has raised the issue of a wall “to wall in Mexicans” so many times, both in public and in his so-called private life, that it’s inconceivable any political analyst can arrive at a precise tally.
Though Trump is at pains to say that some of his friends are Mexicans, he has also said when he kicked off his presidential bid in 2015, about Mexico that “they are not our friend, believe me”. And regarding Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He does not hold Mexico and Mexicans in high esteem.
Which makes it all the more incredible that Mexico came to the aid of the US in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, sending Red Cross volunteers, food and supplies by September 6. “We all know there are some agreements and disagreements between governments, but for the Mexican Red Cross, we are more than glad to be helpful and do some stuff to help people,” Gustavo Santillan, one of the Red Cross volunteers, told The Independent.
On Tuesday, September 5, Carlos Sada, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister for North America, told reporters in Mexico City: “Mexico is ready to help those affected by Harvey. It’s a demonstration of our neighbourliness, a show of solidarity.” Also incredible.
This “demonstration of neighbourliness” occurred in 2005 too, when Mexico sent supplies and 195 people that included medical staff following Hurricane Katrina.
But then after a massive 8.1 magnitude earthquake on September 8 2017, Mexico was forced to redirect its resources and efforts towards the centre of the country, including Mexico City.
These efforts have been compounded by the 7.1 magnitude earthquake on September 19. Hundreds have perished. It must be said that for a nation so reviled by Trump and his hangers-on, Mexicans have responded to the twin quake crises in their hundreds as volunteers have dug through rubble for days and nights following the latest one.
Civil engineers, teachers, you name it have recently offered their services freely, joining soldiers, firefighters and official emergency services.
In an act that is the very definition of realpolitik, Trump tweeted: “God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you.”
But they’re not, are they? Israel has sent a team of rescue professionals and engineers from its military, along with medical staff. El Salvador sent firefighters and rescue teams as did Ecuador, Panama and Chile.
Still, it would be churlish to dwell on the US not making a gesture to aid Mexico as it struggles to deal with hurricanes Harvey and Irma with an estimated cost of $200 billion and 82 deaths attributed to Harvey and 42 to Irma, with thousands displaced.
But that is not taking into account the environmental damage and its impact on human health. According to Vox news: “In the weeks following Hurricane Irma, parts of Florida have been awash in millions of gallons of sewage. Meanwhile, in Texas, oil refineries and chemical plants have dumped a year’s worth of cancer-causing pollutants into the air following Hurricane Harvey.”
In both states, doctors are expecting an increase in respiratory problems and skin infections, among other diseases.
Which begs the question: is there a connection between these hurricanes and global warming? In November 2012 Trump took to his beloved Twitter and tweeted this on global warming: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”
While Trump remains a climate change denialist, with many right-wingers entering the fray with protestations about climate change being the chestnut of Social Justice Warriors, scientists are divided on whether hurricanes are connected to global warming. Richard Branson, though, has slammed Trump – after Hurricane Irma partially destroyed his home on the British Virgin Islands.
On Thursday, September 21, Branson had this to say: “Look you can never be 100% sure about links, but the scientists have said the storms are going to get more and more intense and more and more often. We’ve had four storms within a month. All greater than have ever, ever, ever happened in history … The whole world knows it’s real except for maybe one person in the White House.”
However, BBC News recently said hurricanes are extremely complex phenomena, difficult to predict, with or without the backdrop of climate change. Hurricanes are rare events and on top of that not much historical data exists. Still, it is an established physical law that a hotter atmosphere holds more water.
The atmosphere can hold up to 7% more water for every extra degree Celcius that the atmosphere is warming. And that’s means rainfall events are more extreme when they occur. Also indisputable, is that the average global temperature has risen by more than 1% recently (see the frayintermedia article of September 11 titled Extreme Weather Increase Despite Denial), though a scientific debate as to the causes rages on.
Though it would be neat to wrap up this article and tie its ends with a red bow by asserting that climate change is directly connected to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and the most-recent Maria (that devastated Puerto Rico and Dominica), and the incongruity between that and Trump being a climate change denialist, the truth usually doesn’t present itself in such neat packages.
The reputable Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which is a diverse community of about 300 researchers, collaborators and staff, with many from Britain, India, China, Japan and France, has stated: “It is premature to conclude that human activities – and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming – have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity.”
So, while Earth’s atmosphere has heated up, one can’t conclusively say that that has led to the recent hurricanes coming one after the other in quick succession. While, one could argue that Trump continually builds walls between himself and coherent thought – thinking here of his denigration of demographic groups such as immigrants (including Mexicans) as well as the broad category of women with his locker-room talk of “grabbing ‘em by the pussy” – it’s simply lazy thinking to pinpoint any irony in his climate change denial and the havoc that has gripped parts of the US’s East Coast in the wake of recent hurricanes.
To do so would be to imitate the man and build a wall between oneself and reason.
Special thoughts coming soon
May 28, 2023
Excellent intellectual architecture for the soul.