Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015 and in paperback in January 2017.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

The Blogging Revolution updated and released in India

My 2008 book The Blogging Revolution detailed the role of internet censorship in non-democratic nations and Western firms assisting repressive regimes monitor the web. It was released in an updated e-book edition in August and focused primarily on the Arab revolutions.

I’m proud to announce it’s now being released in an updated print edition in India, the world’s largest democracy. One of the country’s leading publishers, Jaico, is spreading the word across the country. Here’s the new front and back cover:

I hope at least one billion Indians take a read (as I feature content about growing internet censorship in their country).

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Wikileaks releases The Spy Files

Once again, Julian Assange and his team reveal how essential they are to modern news gathering:

Mass interception of entire populations is not only a reality, it is a secret new industry spanning 25 countries

It sounds like something out of Hollywood, but as of today, mass interception systems, built by Western intelligence contractors, including for ’political opponents’ are a reality. Today WikiLeaks began releasing a database of hundreds of documents from as many as 160 intelligence contractors in the mass surveillance industry. Working with Bugged Planet and Privacy International, as well as media organizations form six countries – ARD in Germany, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, The Hindu in India, L’Espresso in Italy, OWNI in France and the Washington Post in the U.S. Wikileaks is shining a light on this secret industry that has boomed since September 11, 2001 and is worth billions of dollars per year. WikiLeaks has released 287 documents today, but the Spy Files project is ongoing and further information will be released this week and into next year.

International surveillance companies are based in the more technologically sophisticated countries, and they sell their technology on to every country of the world. This industry is, in practice, unregulated. Intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities are able to silently, and on mass, and secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help or knowledge of the telecommunication providers. Users’ physical location can be tracked if they are carrying a mobile phone, even if it is only on stand by.

But the WikiLeaks Spy Files are more than just about ’good Western countries’ exporting to ’bad developing world countries’. Western companies are also selling a vast range of mass surveillance equipment to Western intelligence agencies. In traditional spy stories, intelligence agencies like MI5 bug the phone of one or two people of interest. In the last ten years systems for indiscriminate, mass surveillance have become the norm. Intelligence companies such as VASTech secretly sell equipment to permanently record the phone calls of entire nations. Others record the location of every mobile phone in a city, down to 50 meters. Systems to infect every Facebook user, or smart-phone owner of an entire population group are on the intelligence market.

London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism has extensive coverage of the information dump:

A Bureau analysis of the ‘Spy Files’ reveals, for the first time, the breadth of the surveillance industry and its incredible capabilities. The documents have been collected from over 130 companies based in 25 countries from Brazil to Switzerland, and reveal an array of technologies so sophisticated, it often seems to have come out of a Hollywood film.

But the ‘Spy Files’ and their contents are real.  They add weight to the campaigners who claim these proliferating technology companies constitute a new, unregulated arms industry.

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, said: ‘These documents reveal an industry selling tools not just for targeted lawful interception… but for mass surveillance. These tools allow governments to harvest the emails, chat and text messages of entire populations, store them, search them and analyse them. Just as Google lets you search the web, these tools let a secret policeman track everyone who said a rude thing about a dictator. So it’s not surprising they’ve turned up in places like Egypt, Syria and Iran.’

The industry claims it only sells ‘lawful interception’ gear to official authorities: the police, the military and intelligence agencies.

But the sales brochures boast of vast powers of covert observation, with off-the-shelf gear that activists worry could easily be abused by repressive security forces and corrupt officials.

Crossbench peer Lord Alton, who has raised many issues relating to this industry, said: ‘Technology of this kind can be every bit as lethal as the bullets that might be directly sold by a munitions company or armaments quartermaster.’

‘Why sample, when you can monitor all network traffic inexpensively?’ trumpets a brochure from Endace, a company based in New Zealand.

‘Total monitoring of all operators to plug any intelligence leakage is critical for government agencies,’ says Indian company ClearTrail.

China Top Communications, based in Beijing, claims to be able to crack passwords of more than 30 email service providers, including Gmail, ‘in real time by a PASSIVE WAY [sic]‘. In the deliberately obscure language of the surveillance industry, ‘passive’ interception is that which takes place without the target knowing they are being watched.

Some of this technology is being abused by repressive governments to help crack down on dissent.

In October, the Bureau revealed that web filtering equipment from Blue Coat Systems, based in California, is used to censor internet traffic in Syria, despite a US export ban to that country. The company later explained the equipment had been diverted from an importer based in the United Arab Emirates.

Take this as an example:

A British company has been implicated in the sale of state-of-the-art spying technology to Syria, a joint investigation by the Bureau and Newsnight can reveal.

The technology, which enabled the Syrian government to manage a system that could allow the interception and archiving of email and telephone communications, was sold to the regime by Italian company Area.

However, the Bureau has learned that vital surveillance and telecom-tapping equipment that formed part of the package sold by Area, to the Syrian government was made by Utimaco, which is part of Sophos, a British company based in Oxfordshire.

It is alleged that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime either did or intended to use this British software to target activists who have been uploading footage of civil uprisings to the internet.

Following the discovery of the technology in Syria, media pressure on Area has reportedly led the company to pull out of its deal with the country earlier this week, taking with it Utimaco’s equipment.

Or this example:

The operating manual for a spying system built for Colonel Gaddafi may have contained the email addresses of a British lawyer and the new Libyan ambassador to the UK, suggesting that the oppressive regime’s ability to electronically spy on opponents may have extended to Britain.

Amesys, a French company, sold its ‘Eagle’ online surveillance system to the Libyan government in 2007.

The technology is marketed for monitoring terrorists and serious criminals, but it appears the Gaddafi regime may have used it to keep tabs on political opponents, including those overseas. There is no evidence that anyone was harmed as a result of the Amesys system. But a Libya-based individual who is identified in a draft of the manual was summoned in 2009 to explain his emails by Gaddafi’s feared spying chief, Moussa Koussa. It is not known, however, whether this was directly connected or not.

The Libyan surveillance centres were discovered in August by the Wall Street Journal, but this is the first time it has been suggested the technology may have been used outside Libya.

I examined these issues in my 2008 book The Blogging Revolutionjust released in an updated edition in India – and uncovered a network of Western “security” firms assisting repressive states censor the internet.

This world has only grown massively in the last years.

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Strange bedfellows: new nexus between Israel and far Right

My following essay appears in today’s Crikey:

Amid the acres of commentary on the exchange of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, one comment stands out: “Let the WORLD know about Israel’s humanity and the terrorists’ inhumanity — SHARE this one with EVERYONE you know, friends!” What makes it noteworthy is that it featured on the “Geert Wilders International Freedom Allinace”  Facebook page, where supporters of the far-Right Dutch politician gather, one of many messages of fanatical pro-Israeli commentary.

The growing appeal of Israel to the world’s right-wing community has been developing for some years. Nevertheless, some examples are eye-popping. In July 2011, a Russian neo-Nazi delegation travelled to Israel, after an invitation by far Right Israeli politicians and an editor of a pro-settler news service. The Holocaust deniers visited Israel’s Holocaust centre, Yad Vashem, despite being photographed previously giving Nazi salutes and publishing songs celebrating Adolf Hitler on their website.

The pair was interviewed on Israeli TV. One said that the idea of the Jewish state “excites me” because it involves “an ancient people who took upon itself a pioneer project to revive a modern state and nation”. The TV journalist then asked how a neo-Nazi could now embrace Zionism. The other Russian quickly responded by explaining the common enemy they both faced: “We’re talking about radical Islam which is the enemy of humanity, enemy of democracy, enemy of progress and of any sane society.” In December 2010 a much larger delegation of European far Right politicians, including a Belgian politician with clear ties to SS veterans and a Swedish politician with connections to the country’s fascist past, also paid their respects at Yad Vashem. They were welcomed by some members of the Israeli Knesset and agreed to sign a “Jerusalem Declaration”, guaranteeing Israel’s right to defend itself against terror. “We stand at the vanguard in the fight for the Western, democratic community” against the “totalitarian threat” of “fundamentalist Islam”, read the document.

The signatories were some of Europe’s most successful anti-immigration politicians who long ago realised that backing Israel was a clever way to guarantee respectability for a cause that risked being framed as extremist or racist. One Israeli politician who met the delegation, Nissim Zeev, a member of ultra-Orthodox, right-wing party Shas, embraced the group: “At the end of the day, what’s important is their attitude, the fact they really love Israel.”

Yesterday’s anti-Semites have reformed themselves as today’s crusading heroes against an unstoppable Muslim birth-rate on a continent that now sees Islam as an intolerant and ghettoised religion. These increasingly mainstream attitudes have marinated across Europe for at least a decade — most starkly expressed in the writings of the Norway killer Anders Breivik, who slaughtered nearly 70 young left-wingers on Utøya island in late July this year.

Breivik’s interest in Israel wasn’t an accidental quirk of his Google search terms. It was reflective of years of indoctrination from that fateful September day in 2001 onwards. None of Breivik’s right-wing heroes openly praised his killings — politically speaking, half-hearted condemnations were the order of the day — because their vision of open war with Islam was arguably even more clinical. They cheered as America and Israel used the vast power of the state to attack, bomb, drone, kidnap, torture and murder literally countless Muslim victims in the past decade in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, Somalia and beyond.

Breivik’s admired this Israeli “can-do” attitude but equally dismissed left-wing Jews who supported Palestinian rights. “Were the majority of the German and European Jews [in ’30s Europe] disloyal?” he asked in his “2083” manifesto. He went on:

“Yes, at least the so-called liberal Jews, similar to the liberal Jews today that opposes nationalism/Zionism and supports multiculturalism. Jews that support multiculturalism today are as much of a threat to Israel and Zionism (Israeli nationalism) as they are to us. So let us fight together with Israel, with our Zionist brothers against all anti-Zionists, against all cultural Marxists/multiculturalists. Conservative Jews were loyal to Europe and should have been rewarded. Instead, [Hitler] just targeted them all.” (p 1167)

Breivik mirrored the familiar separation of “good Jews” and “bad Jews” that appear in Western dialogue over the Israel/Palestine conflict. The nationalistic, Arab-hating Jew who believes in the never-ending occupation of Palestinian land is praise-worthy but the questioning, anti-Zionist Jew is a threat that must be eliminated. The commentators, journalists and politicians who receive mainstream acceptance and appear regularly in our media such as Daniel Pipes, who calls for the bombing of Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, are welcomed into the club of popular Islamophobes because they speak the language of domination and violence reflected in our media and political discourse on a daily basis.

My enemy’s enemy is my friend

Breivik’s conviction that he was a friend of Zionism created a moral challenge for many of those he had quoted in his manifesto. It was not a challenge many faced well. One of the more notorious, American blogger Pamela Geller, condemned the killings as “horrific” but not so subtly in the same post reminded readers that the young students who attended summer camp at Utøya were actually witnessing an “anti-Semitic indoctrination training centre”. How? Norway’s Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store had visited the camp and called for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, apparently making him an anti-Semite by definition. Regular Jerusalem Post columnist Barry Rubin simply called the youth camp, “a pro-terrorist program”.

Geller was further incensed that he even called “Palestinians” Palestinian, because for her and her fellow travellers the Palestinians aren’t a real people deserving rights or a homeland. “Utøya camp was not Islamist,” Geller assures us, “but it was something not much more wholesome.” Thus Islamophobia seamlessly morphed into blind and racist Zionism.

In Australia likewise, the Israel lobby skirted around this uncomfortable reality, both publicly repulsed by the murders but they remain on the record as arguing for boundaries on Middle East debate. Others simply denied that Breivik’s sympathises for right-wing Zionism was irrelevant to understanding his crimes.

Of course this was absurd. Exaggerating a clash of civilisations has become the bread and butter of countless keyboard warriors in the past decade, with ever-more brutal Israel placed at the forefront of this struggle. Demonising Muslims and calling for their death on a regular basis has consequences. Muslims replacing Jews as the supposed enemy aiming for world domination will come with a price.

Israelophilia in the service of Islamophobia

The message emanating from the Zionist crowd was at times conflicted yet clear; Breivik could be forgiven for thinking that Israel was striving for racial perfection. The Jerusalem Post provided clarification after the attack in a startling editorial. It claimed multiculturalism had failed in Europe, Muslims were a threat to societal harmony and clearly implied that an ethnocracy, such as Israel, was the ideal global model:

“While there is absolutely no justification for the sort of heinous act perpetrated this weekend in Norway, discontent with multiculturalism’s failure must not be delegitimatised or mistakenly portrayed as an opinion held by only the most extremist elements of the Right.”

The Post seemed to defend the mindset, if not the actions, expressed by Breivik, as a common and understandable attitude of simply wanting to “protect unique European culture and values”. These values did not include Islam or being proud of a racially diverse land. (A week later, the paper issued an apology editorial after a massive backlash against its position. Belatedly, the editorial noted that “Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel and around the world should be standing together against such hate crimes”.)

Anders Breivik’s real motivations may never be fully understood but his love for Israel didn’t appear out of the blue. It was because Zionism and its closest followers have cultivated an image of a country that can only survive without integration, peace with its Arab neighbours or an end to the occupation. Racial domination is the dream. Breivik took this call to a devastating conclusion and his manifesto makes clear that his support for Israel is couched in the language of survival against an unforgiving, intolerant and high Muslim birth-rate world.

You can hear these views on any day of the week on Facebook, on Twitter — and in the Israeli Knesset.

*This is an extract from an essay in On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe, edited by Elizabeth Humphrys, Guy Rundle and Tad Tietze, an ebook to be published on October 26. The book will be launched by Senator Lee Rhiannon and Antony Loewenstein , 6.30pm Wednesday, October 26 at the Norfolk Hotel, Cleveland Street in Surry Hills, Sydney.

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Anyone can make a revolution (or can they?)

The upcoming Festival of Dangerous Ideas is taking place at the Sydney Opera House in October. Feel threatened.

I’m involved in the following event on 2 October at 6pm:

In Egypt and Tunisia we have seen ordinary people come together to claim democracy and human rights in the face of oppressive regimes, with Twitter and Facebook the other heroes of the revolution. Are social media and Al Jazeera instrumental in what happened, or are they just the latest communication tools? Can anyone with a mobile phone foment revolution or do the punitive regimes in Syria, Bahrain and Libya show that it takes a whole lot more?

Join our panel: Mona Eltahawy, columnist; Simon Sheikh, international public speaker and national director of the community advocacy group GetUp!; and Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Salil Shetty appears with the support of Amnesty International.

Chaired by Antony Loewenstein;

We may speak about this, this, this, this or this.

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Web “security” firms doesn’t mean helping autocrats feel secure

Surely companies that assist repressive regimes in their censorship should pay a legal and ethical price in their home country? This is an argument in my book The Blogging Revolution (just re-released in an updated edition). This story is from Guelph Mercury:

A Guelph tech firm with a reputation for making tools to control information abroad is now tightening communications at home.

After giving several media interviews during its rapid rise in the burgeoning internet security sector, Netsweeper is now refusing to speak to reporters.

“There’s no good conversation for us to have,” company spokesperson Scott O’Neill told the Toronto Star in June. Requests for comment by the Guelph Mercury and The Canadian Press have also been turned down.

Netsweeper also recently rejected a meeting request by Guelph MP Frank Valeriote.

“I wanted to meet with them. I wanted to learn more about everything they did, more than I was able to glean from their website and news articles,” he said. “I’m disappointed they didn’t want to meet with me.”

The silence follows allegations the company provides censorship software to Middle Eastern clients who actively suppress free speech and access to information.

According to researchers from Citizen Lab, a web censorship watchdog at the Munk School of Global Affairs, at the University of Toronto, Netsweeper currently provides filtering tools to state-owned telecommunications companies in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

All three clients use the software to block political, religious and same-sex content, Citizen Lab has reported. In its promotional material, Netsweeper boasts it can block websites “based on social, religious or political ideals.”

What does any of this mean for Guelph? Some say not much.

“It is not the City’s practice to comment on the business and contractual relationships of private companies,” Peter Cartwright, general manager of economic development and tourism, said. “If the company has broken any provincial or federal laws, these matters would be have to be addressed by those levels of government.”

Others disagree.

“I think as citizens of the local community, the country and the world, we have multiple obligations,” Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab, said.

“It’s imperative that citizens of Guelph think of themselves as custodians of what takes place in Guelph and is projected internationally.”

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The Blogging Revolution updated post the Arab revolutions

In 2008 my second book, The Blogging Revolution, was released. It told the story of the internet in repressive regimes.

Now, post the Arab uprisings, I’ve updated the title and it’s been released globally this week as an e-book via Melbourne University Press:

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The threat of internal critics over war and conflict

Now we know the Bush administration wanted personal information on leading Iraq war critic Juan Cole (who knew that writing a popular blog was such a threat to the US government?)

The former CIA agent who revealed this information, Glenn Carle, tells Democracy Now! why he was deeply concerned by the White House request and the obvious question remains; how many other dissidents of the “war on terror” have been followed, harassed or violated (in the US and also here in Australia)?

AMY GOODMAN: Why Professor Juan Cole? There were so many and are so many critics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why were they singling out him? Or, should I say, were they singling out him? Were you requested to do this on a regular basis?

GLENN CARLE: Yeah, well, that’s—it’s a question that comes to mind, of course, and people have asked me before. I only know what I know. And I don’t mean to quote Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, or paraphrase him. I know the facts concerning Professor Cole, and the instances that have been reported, they are accurate. That’s what I experienced. I don’t know of any other specific person.

I do know the context of tension and hostility between the Bush administration and the intelligence community, and more broadly, any critic of their policies. And the context at the time was intensely—well, it was extremely tense and quite partisan. The politics, we try to stay out of; in the intelligence community, of course, we cannot. And this was happening at a time when there was the whole Valerie Plame incident, Joe Wilson. One of my colleagues on the National Intelligence Council totally, without any intention or desire on his part, became embroiled in the presidential reelection campaign, when an offhand—not offhand, an off-the-record innocuous remark he made was seized by the administration as proof that the intelligence community was trying to undermine its policies. Nothing was further from the truth. He had been asked simply, “Didn’t the intelligence community know that there would be or assess there would be ethnic sectarian strife in Iraq in the event of an invasion?” And essentially, his answer was, “Well, yes.” But that was viewed as treasonous. So that was the larger context.

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Some question and answers about responsibility of writers

Following my essay in the latest edition of literary journal Overland on cultural boycotts, politics, Palestine and Sri Lanka, the magazine interviewed me on various matters:

Passionate and outspoken about Israel/Palestine, among other things, Antony Loewenstein is a freelance independent journalist based in Sydney. Author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, he is a denizen of the Twittersphere. Antony speaks regularly at literary festivals around the world and his essay ‘Boycotts and Literary Festivals’ is published in the 203 edition of Overland.

What was your pathway to becoming a speaker at literary festivals?

I wrote a book and many festivals in Australia invited me. It was My Israel Question, first published in 2006, and told the story of a dissident Jew challenging Zionist power in the West and the realities of occupation for Palestinians. Many Jews hated it, smeared me and tried to shut down the debate. It was typical Zionist behaviour. Thankfully, they failed miserably, despite continuing to try, and even today literary festival directors tell me that the Zionist lobby still tries to pressure them to not invite me to speak on the Middle East, or anything really. This is what Zionism has done to my people, convince them that victimhood is a natural state of affairs and that honest discussion about Israel/Palestine is too threatening to be heard by non-Jews.

The audiences at my literary festival events, since the beginning, have been largely supportive of my stance – though I don’t just speak about Israel/Palestine, also Wikileaks, freedom of speech, web censorship and disaster capitalism – and curiously the strongest Zionist supporters of Israel rarely raise their voices at literary festivals. Instead, they’ll later go into print arguing that festivals were biased against Israel (as happened recently by the Zionist lobby in Australia, condemning my supposedly extremist views on Israel during the Sydney Writer’s Festival). As I say, victimhood comes so naturally to some Jews.

I often have mixed feelings about attending writers’ festivals. I rarely reject an invitation – and have been lucky to speak at events in Australia, India and Indonesia – but it’s often a cozy club that shuns controversy. I like to provoke, not merely for the sake of it, but I know the middle-class audience will not generally hear such thoughts in events about ‘the art of the novel’ or ‘where is the US in 2011?’ I guess if I wrote about knitting or frogs, it may be harder to stir debates.

What is the purpose of a literary festival?

It should be to entertain, challenge and dissect contemporary life. As books sell less in our societies, attendance at literary festivals has increased. People crave intelligent discussion. They generally aren’t receiving that in the corporate media. To see massive audiences in Sydney, Ubud or Jaipur sitting or standing to hear robust debates on the ways of the world can only be a good thing. But there is an important caveat. Do these events too often provide comfort for the listener, a warm glow about themselves and their existence and all-too-rarely tackle the real effects of, say, government policies or the civilian murders in our various wars in the Muslim world?

I argue for a far more politicised literary scene, where intellectuals aren’t so keen to be loved and embraced by an audience but the art of discomfort is raised as an art form. This is why I argue for boycotts in my Overland piece, relating to Palestine and Sri Lanka. Surely our responsibility as artists is not to kow-tow to the powerful but challenge them? And surely our duty is to make people think about the role of non-violent resistance to situations in which we in the West have a role? Literary festivals are a unique opportunity to capture a large audience and throw around some ideas, thoughts which may percolate. If a reader can digest this, still buy a book and ponder something they hadn’t pondered before, my job here is done.

Writer discomfort, to being feted at literary festivals, is my natural state of being. I welcome it.

As a writer, what inspires you?

Passion, direct action, living life in a way that doesn’t ignore the hypocrisy of our realities, lived experiences, detailed journalism, inspiring tales of heroism (that don’t involve women giving up everything and living in Italy for a few months) and voices that struggle to be heard. I’ve always seen my job as a writer as to highlight and brighten the silenced voices in our society. It may be a Tamil or Palestinian, somebody living under occupation or the worker of a multinational who gets shafted for simply doing her job. This may sound pompous or self-important but frankly most journalists say they believe these things but then spend most of their lives dying to be insulated within the power structures of society.

The recent debate in Sydney over Marrickville council embracing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) over Israel was a rare example of government seeing injustice and trying to do something about it. The faux controversy concocted by the Murdoch press, Zionist lobby and Jewish establishment proved just how toxic the occupation of Palestinian lands has become. As a writer, I savoured the few brave individuals who stood up in the face of overwhelming bullying and spoke eloquently for Palestinian rights and real peace with justice in the Middle East. This position is not something that will be taught on a Zionist lobby trip to Israel (something undertaken by most politicians in Australia and many journalists) but real investigation. There are times, though, when I nearly despair, such as my recent visit to New York and attendance at the Celebrate Israel parade.

I think anger is an under-valued attribute in a good writer.

Where are you now, with your writing practice?

I know far more today than when I started my professional career in 2003. In some ways my anger is far more targeted and my writing has improved because of it. I’m pleased that both my current books, My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, are currently being updated and translated in various countries around the world. I’m working on a book about the modern Left and another about disaster capitalism in Australia and the world. And that’s just for starters. I’m rather busy. I constantly struggle with the sheer volume of information that exists out there. The internet is a blessing and a curse. Taking time away from this device would be just lovely but I’m not too sure how to do it. Feeling connected as a writer is one of the most pleasing aspects of my job. From a schoolgirl who uses my work in her classes to an Iranian dissident who reaches out to raise the brutal nature of the Ahmadinejad regime.

Our society is infected with writers who seem to see their role as robots, spokespeople for a predictable cause, afraid to offend or provoke. Being on the road as a writer is a humbling experience, hearing people’s stories, but it can also be lonely. Being challenged on my positions, as I often am over an issue like Palestine, can (usually) only make my work better. The ignorance and cowardly behaviour of our media and political elites over such questions – Wikileaks, Palestine or refugee policies – is indicative of a wider societal malaise and sometimes I’m not surprised that I have so few friends in the media. It’s not a loss. Who wouldn’t want to breathlessly report on the latest press release by the Gillard government? Sigh.

If anything, I hope my Overland piece stimulates thought over the far-too-comfortable and insulated work of the literary and arts scenes in the West. Self-congratulatory back-slaps may feel good at the time but history ain’t being written by time-keepers.

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The Net Delusion is alive and well

My following book review appeared in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald:

THE NET DELUSION
Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane,
408pp, $29.95

As people in the Middle East have been protesting in the streets against Western-backed dictators and using social media to connect and circumvent state repression, it would be easy to dismiss The Net Delusion as almost irrelevant.

Born in Belarus, Evgeny Morozov collects mountains of evidence to claim the internet isn’t able to bring freedom, democracy and liberalism.

Sceptics would tell him to watch Al-Jazeera and see the power of the Facebook generation in action.

In fact, it is a dangerous fantasy to believe, he argues, because countless regimes are using the same tools as activists – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and email – to monitor and catch dissidents.

He writes that “the only space where the West (especially the United States) is still unabashedly eager to promote democracy is in cyberspace. The Freedom Agenda is out; the Twitter Agenda is in.”

Morozov condemns “cyber-utopians” for wanting to build a world where borders are no more. Instead, he says these well-meaning people “did not predict how useful it would prove for propaganda purposes, how masterfully dictators would learn to use it for surveillance” and the increasingly sophisticated methods of web censorship.

Furthermore, Google, Yahoo, Cisco, Nokia and web security firms have all willingly colluded with a range of brutal states to turn a profit.

The Western media are largely to blame for creating the illusion of web-inspired democracy. During the Iranian uprisings in June 2009, many journalists dubbed it the Twitter Revolution, closely following countless tweets from the streets of Tehran. However, it was soon discovered that many of the tweets originated in California and not the Islamic republic. The myth had already been born.

None of these facts is designed to lessen the bravery of demonstrators against autocracies – and Morozov praises countless dissidents in China, the Arab world and beyond – but lazy journalists seemingly crave easy and often inaccurate narratives of nimble young keyboard warriors against sluggish old men in golden palaces.

The New York Times’s Roger Cohen was right when he wrote in January that “the internet’s impact has been to expose the great delusion that has led Western governments to buttress Arab autocrats; that the only alternative to them was Islamic jihadists”.

But most protesters in the streets of Egypt had no access to the internet or any use for it and the main gripes were economic rather than ideological. However, it is undeniable that many of the young organised through online networks and clearly surprised the former Mubarak regime with their ability to harness a mainstream call for change.

Morozov, hailing from a country that knows about disappearances and suppression, urges the West to “stop glorifying those living in authoritarian governments”.

One of the Western fallacies of web usage in non-democratic nations is the belief that people are all looking for political content as a way to cope with repression. In fact, as Morozov proves with research, an experiment in 2007 with strangers in autocratic regimes found that instead of looking for dissenting material they “searched for nude pictures of Gwen Stefani and photos of a panty-less Britney Spears”.

I noted similar trends in China when researching my book The Blogging Revolution and found most Chinese youth were interested in downloading movies and music and meeting boys and girls. Politics was the furthest thing from their minds.

This would change only if economic conditions worsened. A wise government would pre-empt these problems by allowing citizens to let off steam; Beijing has undoubtedly opened up online debate in the past decade, though there are certainly set boundaries and red lines not to cross.

Morozov sometimes underestimates the importance of people in repressive states feeling less alone and mixing with like-minded individuals. Witness the persecuted gay community in Iran, the websites connecting this beleaguered population and the space to discuss an identity denied by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ultimately, The Net Delusion is necessary because it challenges comfortable Western thinking about the modern nature of authoritarianism.

This year we have already been left to ponder the irony of the US State Department deploying its resources to pressure Arab regimes not to block communications and social media while the stated agenda of Washington is a matrix of control across the region.

These policies are clearly contradictory and a person in US-backed Saudi Arabia and Bahrain won’t be fooled into believing Western benevolence if they can merely use Twitter every day.

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My book news for those who still like to read anything longer than an article

My first book, the best-selling My Israel Question, has just been released as an e-book and is available via the Kindle, iBook and other formats. The title is currently being updated and translated into Arabic and Indonesian and will be released in various nations over the coming 12 months. My second book, The Blogging Revolution, is also being updated, in light of the Arab revolutions, and will be released in Australia, India and globally later this year.

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Just how many Western “security” firms helping repressive regimes?

In my book The Blogging Revolution I document a range of companies that sell equipment and software to dictatorships to help them monitor mobile phone calls, text messages and web traffic. I’m currently updating the book in light of the recent Arab revolutions – it’ll be released in Australia and a new overseas edition later in the year – and this topic keeps on appearing.

The UK Guardian has now discovered this:

A British company offered to sell a program to the Egyptian security services that experts say could infect computers, hack into web-based email and communications tools such as Skype and even take control of other groups’ systems remotely, according to documents seen by the Guardian.

Two Egyptian human rights activists found the documents amid hundreds of batons and torture equipment when they broke into the headquarters of the regime’s State Security Investigations service (SSI) last month.

One of the papers, in English and headed Finfisher Proposal: Commercial Offer, contained an offer dated 29 June 2010 to provide “FinSpy” software, hardware, installation and training to the SSI for €287,000 (£255,000). The name on the invoice, dated Tuesday 29 June 2010, was Gamma International UK Limited.

Other documents, written in Arabic and marked “ultimately confidential”, state that after being offered a “free trial version” of Gamma’s Finfisher software to test its ability to hack into email accounts, the SSI concluded it was “a high-level security system” that could get into email accounts of Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo, as well as allowing “full control” of the computers of “targeted elements”. It went on to describe the software’s “success in breaking through personal accounts on Skype network, which is considered the most secure method of communication used by members of the elements of the harmful activity because it is encrypted”.

The find throws a spotlight on western companies that provide software to security services and agents of oppressive regimes to spy on, censor and block the websites with which activists communicate. Last month a report by OpenNet Initiative said nine countries across the Middle East and North Africa used US and Canadian technology to impede access to online content, including sites with political, social and religious material.

Mostafa Hussein, a Cairo blogger and physician who took the documents, said they formed important evidence against the SSI’s activities. “This proposal was sent to a department well known for torture, for abuse of human rights, for spying on political campaigners. This company, Gamma, should be exposed as collaborators in the crimes of trying to invade our privacy and arrest activists.”

Hussein posted the documents online and passed a copy to the Guardian.

A Gamma International website called “Finfisher IT Intrusion” describes its software as allowing “remote monitoring and infection” that can provide “full access to stored information with the ability to take control of the target”. It is advertised as capable of “capturing encrypted data and communications” and allowing a “government agency to remotely infect target systems”.

The documents found in the SSI HQ, one dated 1 January 2011, said that the proposal from Gamma International had come via a subsidiary company, Modern Communications System. Following a “free” five-month trial, SSI described the software as like “planting a comprehensive spying system in the location where the targeted computer exists”. The software could record voice and audio calls, movements through video and audio where the computer was located, and hack into all the computers in the same network.

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Why Israelis can’t just lie back and think of Arab democracy

From a young age, the vast majority of Israeli Jews are taught that Judaism is a superior religion and treating Arabs badly is a necessary price to survive in the Middle East. Hence a nearly 45 year old military occupation of Palestine.

Here’s an interesting perspective from Eyal Press:

Shortly after the democratic uprising began in Egypt, a group of young Israelis led by freelance journalist Dimi Reider launched Kav Hutz (“Outside Line”), a Hebrew-language blog devoted to covering the events across the border. Unable to enter Egypt on short notice with his Israeli passport—a predicament all Israeli correspondents faced—Reider chronicled the insurrection by posting minute-by-minute updates culled from an array of online sources on the ground: Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Egyptian bloggers. The tone of Reider’s blog was reportorial, but hardly detached. “Good luck,” he wrote on the eve of the huge “Day of Departure” rally in Tahrir Square—a sentiment rarely voiced in Israel’s mainstream media, which stressed the danger of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood if the protesters prevailed. By the time Egyptians had succeeded in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak, Kav Hutz was getting up to 12,000 visitors a day and had been singled out in Haaretz for leaving the rest of the Israeli press “in the dust.”

As the story suggests, Egypt’s uprising managed to inspire not only countless young Arabs but also some young Israelis. A contributor to +972, an Israel-based online magazine that features commentary and reporting by mostly young progressives—it is named after the area code shared by Israel and the Palestinian territories—Reider was deeply moved by the courage of the protesters in Cairo and dismayed by the patronizing reaction of many Israelis. “The line the establishment took was that it’s all very nice but they’re going to end up like Iran,” he recalls. “I didn’t take that line because I bothered to read stuff by Egyptians and it quickly became apparent that the Muslim Brotherhood was just one player. It also felt distasteful to me to judge the extraordinary risks Egyptians were taking solely by our profit—by how it would affect Israeli security and the policy of a government I don’t support anyway.”

For observers troubled by Israel’s alarming recent shift to the right, the emergence of Internet-savvy liberal voices like Reider’s may seem heartening. But while such bloggers appear more capable of reaching a younger demographic than Haaretz—the venerable leftist newspaper whose aging readership seems likely to shrink in the years to come—it’s not clear how many of their contemporaries are listening to them. One reason is apathy. Increasingly cynical about politics and the prospects of peace, not a few young Israelis I’ve met in recent years have told me they’ve stopped following the news. When they go online, it’s to chat with friends, not to check out sites like +972.

There are also growing numbers of young Israelis who simply don’t share Reider’s views. Against the 12,000 readers of Kav Hutz were countless others who didn’t question the alarmist tone of their country’s mass-circulation tabloids when the revolt in Egypt began, as NPR discovered when it aired a segment on what Israeli youth thought of the uprising. “For us it is better to have Mubarak,” one young Israeli said. “I kind of feel sad for President Mubarak,” said another.

“For the last two or three years, we’ve been seeing a very consistent trend of younger Israelis becoming increasingly right-wing,” Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion analyst who also contributes to +972, told me. Last year, Scheindlin carried out a survey on behalf of the Kulanana Shared Citizenship Initiative that showed eroding support for democratic values among Israeli youth, at least insofar as the rights of non-Jews go. One question in the survey asked whether there should be “Equal access to state resources, equal opportunities [for] all citizens.” Among Jewish respondents between the ages of 16-29, a mere 43 percent agreed.

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