The Tragic Death of Mashal Khan

Mashal Khan was a Pashtun student at the Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, Pakistan, who was killed by an angry mob on the premises of the University on 13 April 2017, over fake allegations of posting blasphemous content online.  Following investigations, the Inspector General of Police later stated “We did not find any concrete evidence under which [a blasphemy] investigation or legal action can be launched against Mashal, Abdullah or Zubair.   Mashal’s friend Abdullah stated to the police in writing that both Mashal and he were devout Muslims, but were actively denouncing mismanagement by the university and had previously led protests against it. Following the death of Khan, at least 45 people were arrested.  The suspects will be brought before the Anti-Terrorism Court of Pakistan.

Such is the situation in Pakistan and in many other Muslim countries, that anyone thought to be guilty of blasphemy can be killed.  Theoretically under Islam, blasphemy is a capital crime, and in a Muslim State like Pakistan where Sharia law is enforced, execution is the sentence.  But, since such cases rarely get to the court and the tendency is not to enforce the death sentence, it has become common for a mob of righteous Muslims to take the law into their own hands.  The same happened in Afghanistan in March 2015, Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old Muslim woman falsely accused of burning a Koran, was beaten to death by a mob in central Kabul as hundreds looked on.  This also lead to an international furore.

In the case of Mashal Khan, he was an excellent student who had gone to Russia to take a course and had come back to Pakistan with western ideas.  On his wall he had pictures of Lenin and Che Guevara.  Apparently he had upset some of his fellow students and the Administration of the University with his out-spoken views.  On the day of his death the rumor spread that he had blasphemed against Islam and a mob of his fellow students gathered outside his room.  Then they forced their way in and beat him, then dragged him outside the building and in broad daylight in front of hundreds of people they shot him and mutilated his body.  Let me repeat there was no actual evidence that he ever posted anything blasphemous.  But, even if he did…

There were 20 policemen on duty at the University that day and neither they nor the Administration did anything about it.  They did not report the incident to the police as required.  After complaints by his parents and friends, and international reporting, the police were forced to take action.  They have several videos taken on cell cameras  of the incident and they have arrested many students and members of the University Administration.  After further political protests, the University was forced to shut down.   There is now a serious debate going on in Pakistan over whether the blasphemy law is too broad and needs to be abolished.  But, there is strong opposition by the religious elements, many of whom believe that what the mob did to Mashal Khan was righteous justice. 

The SW Syria Ceasefire Agreement

At the G8 Summit Meeting in Krakow, Poland, where Presidents Trump and Putin met for the first time, there was a surprising announcement, a ceasefire in SW Syria.  How did this come about?  An easy guess is that both Russia and the US were anxious to avoid any direct clashes between their forces.

The possibility that Russian and US planes might find themselves in combat may be quite remote, but the possibility that Israeli and Syrian planes might in fact be in combat is not unlikely.  This might bring the US and Russia into a difficult situation, on opposite sides, so to avoid further problems, the two leaders agreed, and their allies of course went along.  This includes the anti-Assad, American-supported democratic opposition that is strong in Dera’a, but was expecting a major attack by the Syrian regime forces.

Perhaps more significantly, this includes Israel, that has warned both Russia and the US that should Hezbollah or Iran try to establish a military foothold in SW Syria near the Golan Heights border with Israel, this would be considered a reason for Israel to become engaged in a military intervention.  In fact yesterday Israel warned that any attempt by the Syrian or Iranian armed forces to establish a military position in southern Lebanon would likewise be viewed by Israel as a provocation and would result in a military response.

While this ceasefire in SW Syria seems to be holding and while it may be the first step in a peace agreement for the whole of Syria, don’t hold your breath.  Serious clashes are still occurring around Raqqa, and until the Islamic State forces in Syria are fully defeated there can be no extension of the ceasefire.  Then there will be the problem that the Kurdish forces, that are supported by the US, are unlikely to withdraw readily from Raqqa and other area that they have captured.  This will anger both Syria and Turkey and the future consequences cannot readily be foreseen.

Israeli Soldiers Killed in Jerusalem

Two Israeli border policemen were murdered by gunfire from three Arab Muslims in Jerusalem last Friday while they were guarding the Temple Mount .  The two policemen were Druse. Their fellow soldiers followed the terrorists into the Al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount and killed them.  This was clearly intended to be a provocation so that the Muslim community would react angrily to the killings in the Mosque and would attack the Temple Mount (that they call Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary).

Although there was some continuing violence, such a major confrontation did not take place.  The Israeli authorities at first closed the Mosque and then searched it for weapons that have been smuggled in there (note that Muslims believe it is appropriate to store weapons in and attack from Mosques since they see Mosques as centers of Islamic power for example in the Islamic State and in Gaza; this is quite different from the Judeo-Christian view of places of worship).

After they had cleansed the Mosque the Border police erected metal detectors in front of the entrance to the Mosques on the Temple Mount to check all Muslim worshipers entering.  This brought a strong denunciation from PA President Abbas (he did not protest the shooting of the Israeli policemen).  In northern Israel there were some protests from the Northern Islamic League and the usual cry of “Al-Aksa is in danger” was heard.  But, the Israeli authorities announced quickly that they had no intention of changing the situation of the Mosques on the Temple Mount and indeed the Mosques were open to visitors starting this Sunday.

Some readers might be confused by the fact that the Israeli border policemen killed were Druse and not Jews.  In fact, the small Druse community in Israel, even though they are Arabs, is very pro-Israel and supportive of the State.  Their men usually volunteer for the Border Guards, and indeed they have a fearsome reputation for the Palestinian Arabs. The Druse religion started in Egypt hundreds of years ago and is considered heretical by Muslims.  They were severely persecuted and eventually found refuge in the mountainous region that straddles the border between Israel. Syria and Lebanon.   The Druse religion is secret and they are a very close-knit community, living in Israel mainly in the Carmel mountain region.  They tend to be very loyal to whatever Government they live under and are renowned for their fighting ability.

The Lost City of “Z”

Percy Fawcett was a daring officer in the British Army.  He had worked at the Royal Geographical Society in London learning how to do surveying and map making. In 1905 he was approached by the RGS to go to South America to survey the region between Bolivia and Brazil in order to draw an agreed boundary to prevent a war.  He accepted this daunting task and in 1906 at the age of 39 spent three years with a small expedition trudging through the thick Amazonian jungle. I had read about his exploits and finally someone has made a movie about him, which I have just seen, entitled “The Lost City of Z.”   This is based on a book by David Grann in 2009 named “The Lost City of Z: A tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon.”  Note that the character of Indiana Jones was partly based on him, as well as such books as “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle (better known for his “Sherlock Holmes” stories) and many subsequent imitations.

Fawcett lead several expeditions to the Amazon region, and found that giving gifts to the local Indian chiefs was the best way to avoid conflict.  He claimed that in the jungle he had found remains of an ancient city, but was unable to follow-up this finding.  In 1914 he rejoined the British Army and fought bravely as a reserve officer at the Battle of the Somme, where he was partially blinded in a gas attack.  He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order in 1917 and retired from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

He then returned to his obsession to try to find this lost city in the Amazon jungle, that he called “Z.”  In this exploit he was definitely influenced by the success of the findings of Aztec and Maya ruins in the jungles of Central America and of the Inca city of Machu Pichu in Peru discovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.  In contrast however, Fawcett preferred to travel in a small close-knit group.  In 1925, at the age of 58, accompanied by his son Jack and a few friends, he returned to the region in an attempt to find the so-called “lost city of Z.”  In doing so he was influenced by a ms he found in the National Library in Rio de Janiero written in 1753 by a Portuguese bandeirante named Joao da Silva Guimaraes (many of these so-called “bandits” were former Crypto-Jews escaping the Inquisition) that described such a city.   He was also influenced by the teachings of Madame Blavatsky, who was a Russian occultist and a founder of the Theosophical Society, who believed in the existence of superior human civilizations.

In 1925 he and his companions disappeared in the region of the Matto Grosso.  The site of his last camp are known, but their fate is unknown.  He wrote a will requesting that if he did not return no-one should search for him in case they suffered the same fate.  But, in fact his disappearance became an international cause celebre and many did in fact try to discover his fate.  It is said that ca. 100 people have died in numerous expeditions in the region to find either his remains or the lost city of “Z.”   Until now no-one has been successful.

The movie is a Hollywoodized version of the story, quite accurate, yet full of minor distortions.  For example, although Fawcett claimed to have found some ruins near the source of a river that he had mapped, he apparently had no physical evidence for his claim and he never actually returned to that location.  His expeditions were relatively amateurish affairs with insufficient supplies and planning. It is probable that in his last expedition they lost most of their belongings in a river accident, they were all ill and did not have any gifts with which to placate the hostile Indians.  At the end of the movie a compass is given to the Chairman of the RGS as an indication that Fawcett was still alive. However this item was actually found many years later in the custody of an Indian Chief. Finally, there is a statement at the end that tries to exonerate Fawcett by claiming that a network of an advanced civilization has been found in the Amazon jungle, but this claim is unsubstantiated.

 

 

Populism and its Dangers

Dr. Norman Bailey, currently professor at Haifa University and former National Security adviser to both Presidents Reagan and Bush, spoke on the subject “Trump, Le Pen, Wilders and the Others, ” with the sub-title “contemporary populism and how it differs from its predecessors.”   He gave a professional and informative lecture and this is my attempt at a brief summary.

He pointed out that “populism,” the development of popular political movements, is not a new thing by any means.  It was known among the ancient Greeks, and indeed “democracy” as it was then known was described by Aristotle as akin to “mob-rule.”  He preferred rule by a few benign wise men.  However, that does not tend to happen.  The populist movements of the twentieth century have generally been disastrous, namely Fascism, Nazism, Socialism and Communism.  In each case these were motivated not only by envy, greed and power, but by ideology.  There was ideology of the left and of the right.

In the current political situation one can define Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland as populists of the right.  They have largely been propelled into prominence by the nationalistic reaction against the EU and the immigration issue. Populists of the left include Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Note that Sanders was not actually a member of the Democratic Party, he was elected Senator as an independent, yet he almost achieved the Democratic Party nomination because of a populist movement, except for the nefarious (and documented) cheating by Hillary Clinton’s Party machine.  In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn would have remained a nonentity if it were not for the disastrous decision by PM Theresa May to call a pre-Brexit election, that propelled Corbyn into an unassailable leadership role in the Labour Party due to a populist movement.

But, one difference between these current and past leaders of ideological movements and the current situation is that now we have non-ideological populism of the center.   For example, Donald Trump, who is not a conservative and was not a leading Republican, yet managed to defeat all the other authentic Republicans. Why? Because he identified himself as not coming from Washington DC, as not having been part of the ruling oligarchy, as not being part of the Party hierarchy and espousing causes that appeal to the majority of working and middle class Americans.  It is an astounding fact that ca. 1% of the richest Americans own ca. 48% of the total US wealth. The tendency of this accumulation of wealth and power has been accelerating with time, and the other 99% of Americans feel this.  They are looking for a champion, someone who will right this wrong, someone who will represent them, and this makes a populist movement, without any clear ideology.

Similarly in France, President Macron was virtually unknown one year ago.  He left government, formed his own party and is now President with a majority in the National Assembly.   Macron and Trump just met in Paris on Bastille Day, and no wonder they get along and were slapping each other on the back and declaring eternal friendship since they are both leaders of non-ideological populist movements.

I pointed out that there is a kind of contradiction in the secular West, the idea of democracy is almost a sacred belief.  Yet, when countries in Europe first achieved emancipation they lapsed into extreme populist movements that resulted in Nazism and Communism.  As Bertrand Russell said “beware of the ideologues.”   Yet, to paraphrase Winston Churchill “democracy is not a perfect system, but its the best one we have.”

 

 

Packing

Dear friends, as many of you may know we are moving from Netanya to Beersheva in early September to be near our daughter and family.   In preparation for this move, so difficult at our age, we are in the process of packing.  One collects so many things during a lifetime.  Although we pared down considerably when we made aliyah (moved from the USA to Israel), we are now doing it again.  We are ridding ourselves of much extraneous baggage, and yet retaining so much that is both necessary and of sentimental value.

Yesterday I put all my tape cassettes and VCR tapes into bags and dumped them in the trash.  Technology moves on and so must we.  I am keeping my CD’s for the moment and most of my books.  They represents so much of what we are, our music and our stories. As for the rest, my grandson Hillel came and helped me wrap my larger paintings for transfer and we are now sorting clothing and glassware, and so on.

As a result of these preparations my ability to write a daily blog has been compromised. I will try to continue to write as often as I can, but until we are resettled, I will not be able to ensure such a steady flow of articles.  In the meantime I have not been idle, I have helped my friend Eddie Bielowsky publish his memoir of the Shoah, entitled “Invisible Jews: surviving the Holocaust in Poland.” Also, I have written and just published a book on the subject of the Bnei Anousim or “marranos” entitled “The Reawakening: the re-emergence of Jews after 500 years of Spanish-Portuguese Catholic Persecution,” which will be available on Amazon.com.

I will be busy packing and preparing for the next six weeks until the move.  But, don’t worry, I hope to continue to have some more original, interesting and even compelling insights with which to entertain you.

Hell on Earth

Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is the title of a documentary film made by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested in 2017.  From many media sources it shows the start of the Syrian Civil War, the development of ISIS, the extension of the war to Iraq and then the gradual defeat of IS.  Here is some analysis:

  1. The initial demonstrations against the Assad regime were met with such brutal suppression that there was bound to be an organized reaction.  Young people were being systematically shot down in the streets.  One man said that he personally witnessed 80 people tortured to death and murdered in a prison. This prompted many Syrian soldiers to defect and join the burgeoning resistance, that cohered to some extent into the Free Syrian Army.  They captured some Army barracks and distributed arms to many local militias.
  2. At the same time the Assad regime released some high level Al Qaeda operatives, the tactic being that they could then label all the resistance as terrorists.  No-one foresaw that Al Qaeda would start to control territory and that this would then metastasize into the so-called Islamic State.
  3. At first the Islamists took over bakeries and food depots and then banks and gas stations and then they attacked and took over villages and towns.  They were more intent on killing the secular anti-Assad forces than the pro-Assad forces, and in effect they took over eastern Syria while leaving Assad in control of the west.  It was only when the Kurds with US support counter-attacked after IS took over Sinjar that IS started to spread into Iraq.
  4. The weakness and indecisiveness of Pres. Obama was intimately connected to the expansion of the fighting in Syria and Iraq.  Not only did he take no effective action against Assad, but he failed to support the FSA (in case guns fell into the hands of the Islamists) and he declared a “red-line” against the use of chemical weapons, then failed to act on it.  Not only that, later,when IS was making significant gains, he declared that the US would not stand for it, and he called in Senators to brief them and arranged with allies to start military action and then at the last moment went on TV and declared that he would take no action because he didn’t want to get the US involved.  At the same time he withdrew all US forces from Iraq, and this was seen by IS as a signal for them to go ahead.
  5. The film documents the lives of a family that fled Aleppo after the Assad regime bombed it indiscriminately and went into the countryside.  But, then IS came and took over the area and started murdering people and extorting money, just like a gang of criminals, and so they fled again, this time to Turkey.  They tried to cross the straits to Greece, but were intercepted and returned to Turkey.
  6. The downfall of IS was presaged when they started to threaten Baghdad.  Then the Iraqi Army with US support counter-attacked and drove them back and this process has been continuing.  The loss of Mosul and other cities and oil facilities means a loss of revenue for IS and so their finances and influence are waning.
  7. Meanwhile under the Trump Administration, more support has been given to the Kurdish forces allied with several Sunni Arab forces in the north and they are currently besieging Raqqa.
  8. The downfall of the so-called Caliphate will lead to more “lone-wolf” attacks as a means of bringing the war home to the countries that IS see as their enemies, including Britain, France and the US.
  9. Note that Israel is not mentioned in this documentary, thus adding to the contention that the Israel-Arab conflict is not basic to the issues of war and peace in the Middle East, as many so-called pundits proclaim.

There is no doubt that Syria has become a “hell on earth,” with terrible human suffering. Around 500,000 Syrians have been killed and about half the country (ca. 10 million people) have been displaced and/or have become refugees.  Attempts to compare this suffering with other situations are futile.