I’m currently in America, investigating disaster capitalism in privatised immigration detention for my 2015 Verso book.
I’ve been watching a lot of cable TV (lord knows why but I’m a masochist) and it’s been ISIS day and night (apart from mostly awful coverage of the killing of Michael Brown and white blindness on racism). Fox News is desperate for President Obama to bomb Muslims and ISIS is the current target in Syria and Iraq (host Justice Jeanine’s monologue reflects the bloodlust inside Murdoch’s station). The former head of Britain’s MI5 stated that the Iraq war massively increased the terror threat. What do you think attacking Iraq (again) and Syria (presumably with the assistance of the once-reviled and now loved Assad regime) will do? ISIS has grown because the Assad regime allowed it to surge, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Understanding the reality and rise of ISIS is clearly too difficult for many in the mainstream media though journalist Patrick Cockburn’s new book is one of the best primers. How to tackle ISIS extremism, especially in the wake of the shocking beheading of US reporter James Foley, brings clear challenges to the press. What to show, how to show it, what is propaganda?
This VICE News film on ISIS is remarkable, scary, intense and vital. Incredible access:
Last Friday I gave the following speech at Sydney’s Lebanese Muslim Association forum on terrorism, Gaza, ISIS and Western governments spreading fear and anger towards the Islamic faith. Labor MP Tony Burke and Liberal MP Craig Laundy both pledged to bring harmony to the community and yet both their parties have flamed bigotry. Government surveillance is clearly mostly targeted towards Muslims and honest politicians would acknowledge it.
Here’s my speech:
– Thanks to Andrew Bolt and the Murdoch press for mentioning tonight’s event this week; it’s clearly a threat to public order to be critical of Israel and the “war on terror”.
– It’s a shame there are no women on this panel discussing the effects of war, terrorism and the Middle East from the group that often suffers the most from counter-terrorism policies as well as Zionist and Muslim extremism.
– We must resist fear without question.
– We must resist the narrative being sold to us about Palestine and Israel, so-called Western “humanitarian intervention” and government spin over the supposed terrorist threat.
– We must resist the pressure placed on vulnerable communities to accept collective guilt for the actions of a few. I believe the Muslim leadership needs to more vigorously refuse to co-operate so closely with governments and intelligence bodies that aim to bring mass surveillance on the Muslim and wider communities.
– A recent report in the US, through documents leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, found that the NSA and FBI have been secretly monitoring for years thousands of Muslims with no connection to terrorism at all, along with a handful of potential extremists. Some of the most prominent Muslim spokespeople in the US are now suing the US government for being caught in an unaccountable system with no chance to defend themselves.
– Another recent report, from another NSA whistle-blower, revealed that the Obama administration has placed over 680,000 people on its secretive Terrorist Screening Database with more than 40% of these individuals having no connection to terrorism.
– With our closeness to the US, there’s every reason to believe the Muslim community in Australia is equally under suspicion. The Muslim response should not be acquiescence with the state, the AFP or ASIO but demands to know the evidence explaining why collective guilt has become the defacto policy from Canberra. It is unacceptable and does not make us safer.
– Let’s speak out against the barbarity of ISIS and Al-Qaeda and understand why this hatred is brewing in our midst. It’s because of failings in education, language, parenthood, attention, imams, government actions, Western foreign policy hypocrisy and atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Libya and beyond. We have a responsibility to challenge fundamentalism and understand its roots to reduce it.
– I speak to you as an atheist, Jewish, Australian, proud of my heritage but ashamed of Israeli actions. A few years ago my friend Peter Slezak and I founded Independent Australian Jewish Voices to highlight the growth in Jewish dissent over the Middle East. Not all Jews are Zionists and increasingly across the world young Jews are speaking out against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and wars in Gaza. Not in our name.
– Jews who speak out against Israel are often demonised, harassed and threatened. But recent actions in Gaza, the brutality, death and destruction, have unleashed a growth in Jewish dissent around the world.
– Anti-Semitism must never be tolerated. It must be challenged and crushed. This conflict isn’t about Jews versus Arabs. It’s about Zionism colonising Arab lands. Remember that many Jews are proudly Jewish and proudly anti-Zionist.
– 500 South African Jews, from a traditionally strongly Zionist community, recently signed a public letter that read in part: “Just as we resist anti-Semitism, we refuse to dehumanise Palestinians in order to make their deaths lighter on our collective conscience. We sign this statement in order to affirm their humanity and our own. We distance ourselves from South African Jewish organizations whose blind support for Israel’s disproportionate actions moves us further from a just resolution to the conflict.”
– This is the kind of humane Judaism of which I can be proud.
– One of the finest Israeli, Jewish journalists, Gideon Levy, explained this week what is at stake and why we must stay vigilant and outspoken: “A wave of animosity is washing over world public opinion. In contrast to the complacent, blind, smug Israeli public opinion, people abroad saw the pictures in Gaza and were aghast. No conscientious person could have remained unaffected. The shock was translated into hatred toward the state that did all that, and in extreme cases the hatred also awakened anti-Semitism from its lair. Yes, there is anti-Semitism in the world, even in the 21st century, and Israel has fuelled it. Israel provided it with abundant excuses for hatred. But not every anti-Israeli sentiment is anti-Semitism. The opposite is true – most of the criticism of Israel is still substantive and moral. Anti-Semitism, racist as any national hatred, popped up on the sidelines of this criticism – and Israel is indirectly responsible for its appearance.”
– The media frames this issue as between two equal sides fighting over land and autonomy. The press says it’s “complicated”, that only certain perspectives should be heard, namely Zionist lobbyists and the occasional Palestinian or Arab. This is a lie. For too long, spokespeople from the Jewish establishment claim that their community speaks in one voice over Israel. They say they’re against terrorism and want peace. But what about state terrorism, unleashed by Israel and Australia and the US in Iraq and Afghanistan? Their dangerous tendency to conflate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism leads to public skepticism over their cause.
– In reality, this conflict is about occupation of Palestinian land, since 1948, and the legitimate rights of both Jews and Arabs to live in peace in Palestine. I have seen the reality of this situation with my own eyes in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and found warmth, resistance, hardship, destruction of neighbourhoods and a desire for peace. But there cannot be a true and sustainable peace without justice, the Palestinian Right of Return and an end to the decades-long occupation.
– Shamefully, successive Australian governments have indulged Israeli actions for too long. As a result, Canberra is now a fringe player on the world stage, unable to even acknowledge that East Jerusalem is “occupied”. The rise of Israeli fascism, endorsed by the Israeli government, is largely ignored in the West.
– But there is hope. The last ten years have seen an explosion of new media that allows a stunning diversity of views. During the recent Gaza conflict, we all consumed tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and mainstream news from countless sources inside Gaza. Some were Gazans, able to communicate their plight online to the world, and others were brave professional reporters, such as Jon Snow from Britain’s Channel 4, who were unafraid to document the horrors unleashed by Israel on the people of Gaza.
– In Australia Palestinian writers and commentators are occasionally heard though far too rarely. There is still timidity. Here’s an example. I was recently asked to appear on a popular current affairs TV show to debate a Zionist lobbyist. The lobbyist refused to show up alongside me so the TV producer cut the segment. Without a strong pro-Israel voice it was deemed impossible to have the story. How many times is a pro-Israel voice appearing alone on our TV screens? Regularly. A robust discussion over Israel and Palestine is healthy and necessary within the Jewish community but just featuring a Jewish dissident, on my own, was clearly a bridge too far. Why not have a Jew and Palestinian discuss the issues calmly and passionately?
– The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is surging in popularity. From public moves against Sodastream for operating a factory in the occupied territories to European countries selling stakes in Israeli banks that bankroll the occupation. I strongly support BDS and encourage its growth in Australia. I hope the Muslim community more fully embraces this non-violent tactic, by lobbying politicians, businesses and the media to force Israel and its financial and intellectual backers to pay a price for flouting international law.
– Of course Israel isn’t the only guilty party in the Middle East. One of the most pernicious actors is the US-backed Saudi Arabia, spreading poisonous Wahabism across the world. Extremism lives in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Palestine, Egypt, Yemen and Iran. Do not be afraid to confront the radicals in our own communities, those who preach death, beheadings and violent jihad.
– We must resist with purpose.
This Friday the Lebanese Muslim Association has organised an event titled, “From Iraq to Gaza: The Politics of Fear”. I’ll be speaking alongside many others.
Daring to be critical of the dominant narrative over Palestine or terrorism has upset Rupert Murdoch’s resident race-baiter Andrew Bolt.
There’s also a “story” in today’s Murdoch Australian that features a comical statement from the Zionist lobby, showing how they only want society to hold events that praise Israel under their terms. In other words, never. It’s no wonder they’re regarded as censorious fringe dwellers. And thanks, Rupert, for calling me a “noted anti-Zionist author”:
Liberal MP Craig Laundy will pretty much front any public forum no matter who’s on the panel if it gives him the chance to discuss government policy and break down the “them and us” mentality he says is being perpetuated against the Muslim community.
The western Sydney member for the culturally diverse seat of Reid has been lambasted for agreeing to take part in a Lebanese Muslim Association event tomorrow titled From Iraq to Gaza: The Politics of Fear, which will also be attended by a number of anti-Israeli commentators.
The panel includes pro-international boycott, divestment and sanctions academics Peter Slezak and Jake Lynch and noted anti-Zionist author Antony Loewenstein.
Also on the panel are interfaith activist Aftab Ahmad Malik, who is often highly critical of Israel, Labor MP Tony Burke and journalism academic Peter Manning.
Mr Laundy was a key voice arguing against the Abbott government’s ultimately scrapped plan to overturn section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
“I knew Tony Burke was going, but I’ve never met the other people on the panel. I don’t know their views on things and I don’t care,” Mr Laundy told The Australian. “They’re entitled to their view. I’m going to explain what we as a government are doing and why we’re doing it and to answer questions about it.
“When I’m invited to go somewhere and explain government policy I will do so.”
Last night a spokesman for the Executive Council for Australian Jewry told The Australian the forum had “questionable intellectual and moral credibility”.
“All the speakers are on record as taking a generally antipathetic view of Israel. Some of them have even called for its destruction,” AJAC executive director Peter Wertheim said. “The entire event is designed as an opportunity to polemicise against Israel and its western allies.”
Mr Burke told The Australian: “It’s an important time for a constructive dialogue with the community about events in these parts of the world.”
Mr Laundy, who said his colleagues backed his move to speak at tomorrow’s event, said overall the reaction in his electorate had been mixed to the latest suite of anti-terror laws — which included requiring travellers prove their trip to designated areas in the Middle East was legitimate — but the dialogue needed to continue.
“There is a lot of detail still to come and the job of a local MP is to front up and speak to a local community … to be that two way-conduit,” he said.
Mr Laundy said he “believes fundamentally in free speech”. “My argument on 18C was pragmatic — with rights come responsibility,” he said. “The people that argue against me over that, are now the same ones who want to persecute someone because of their religion. “They want to criticise me. I should have freedom of association on Friday night but they want to criticise me for doing my job as a local federal MP.”
Mr Laundy, who became the first Liberal to win his seat at the last election, said the message he was taking to the community was that “with rights come responsibility — practise your religion, live within the law”.
He condemned the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as nothing more than “sectarian terrorism”.
My weekly Guardian column:
Libya was sold as a glorious, liberating war. London’s Tory mayor Boris Johnson wrote in March 2011 that the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi was “of course … a good idea”. He was cautiously optimistic that a Western-led military campaign would not be a “disaster” like Iraq in 2003. “What kind of democracy do we hope will bloom in the desert soil, after decades in which political parties have been banned?” he mused.
Johnson was joined by a host of world leaders, journalists and humanitarian interventionists calling for overwhelming firepower to be deployed against the Libyan army. The western-backed Misrata militias killed Gaddafi and optimism about Libya’s future was in the air. The subject of Libya and the left was much-canvassed, including by Australian writer Guy Rundle, who wrote:
“For my money once a request was made for support [from Libyan rebels], and in explicit terms, honouring it was simply delivering on an implicit promise made by the notion of international solidarity.”
Current events prove this sentiment was badly misplaced, if not naïve. Libya is now divided by civil war, armed groups roam the streets and violence is ubiquitous. The United Nations and American ambassador have fled.
The New York Times last weekend explained the failure of the intervention instigators to invest enough time and energy in nation-building. “In the absence of a strong government,” journalist Kareem Fahim wrote, “a monstrous shadow state was emerging, centred on the power of militias made up of men who fought Colonel Gaddafi and never put down their arms.”
The delicate job of constructing an inclusive democracy since the fall of Gaddafi has been complicated by the extremism of Islamist forces, incompetence and corruption in the political class and the shift in global interest to other conflicts. Amnesty International reported just before the 2012 election that democratic institutions were weak, and were struggling to cope with the Misrata militias, who were engaged in ethnic cleansing and conducting arbitrary arrests and torture. This report was barely covered in the global press.
Libya is mostly ignored today because foreign correspondents are busier than ever. Although an army of brave freelancers and citizen journalists are invaluable when it comes to covering war, mainstream resources are dwindling. In a new book by reporter Anjan Sundaram, on his experiences as a stringer in Congo, he explains how the site of one of the worst genocides in modern times was largely ignored by editors in Western capitals.
“The Western news media are in crisis and are turning their back on the world”, he argued recently in the Times. “We hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for years or months, reporters now handle 20 countries each. Bureaus are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive bungalows or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.”
Libya has suffered this fate. After initial fascination with the Arab Spring reaching Tripoli, media interest dwindled and moved onto other places, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine. There was little talk of the pragmatic reason London, Paris and Washington wanted access to Libya: huge oil reserves.
With chaos now descending across the state, and Libyan weapons spreading to Syria, Mali and beyond, the silence from those who backed the 2011 war is deafening. They’ve simply moved onto the next conflict, the next place to advocate intervention, the next editor and journalist guaranteed to completely ignore their record of backing the last disaster. Amnesia and eternal forgiveness are hallmarks of corporate punditry.
One of the leading arguments in favour of bombing Libya and overthrowing Gaddafi was the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). It was constantly cited as a key justification for assisting the beleaguered Libyan population. David Cameron, the British prime minister, and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, were just two of the prominent advocates of R2P in 2011.
Three years on, the crisis in Libya barely rates a mention, and R2P reeks of selective application. When British journalist Mehdi Hasan asked French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, a supporter of Western military action against Muslim states, whether he took any responsibility for the troubles in Libya in 2013, he ducked and weaved. He preferred to boast of his desire to bomb Syria. When asked whether a military force should be stationed in Palestine to defend its civilians, he admired Israel’s inherent humanity.
I feel like I’ve been writing this same column for over a decade, reminding politicians, journalists and commentators that the internet is the ultimate record of their advocacy for violence against unarmed peoples in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine or Libya. With a record like this, it’s no wonder humanitarian intervention is associated with creeping colonialism.
We never hear any R2P backers pushing for a military intervention in Gaza to protect the Palestinians from Israeli missiles. Nobody is talking about protecting Egyptian civilians from the brutal, US-backed dictatorship in Egypt. Barely a word is raised to protect the repressed activists in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s dressed up as solidarity, a responsibility to protect, or an intervention to prevent breaches of human rights, from Iraq to Libya these are grotesque experiments on helpless civilians, the conclusions of which are clear for us to see.
A strong piece by Larry Derfner in +972 magazine:
Most people in the West, I’d say, think that if Israel gives up the occupation, it will be healed. It will no longer be a danger to others and itself. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and additional proof of this came Monday night when Israeli jet bombers again struck Hezbollah in Lebanon. The attack was another reminder that even if Israel were to get out of the West Bank and adopt a hands-off policy toward Gaza, it still believes it has the right to bomb neighboring countries to retard their military develoIpment, all the while Israel itself, of course, goes on building its arsenal to the heavens.
That won’t change if Israel signs a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Hezbollah will still be arming itself across the border, Muslim countries will sooner or later try to build nuclear weapons. And Israel won’t tolerate that; Israel will keep sending out the jet bombers (unless, as in the case with Iran, America puts its foot down).
Israel’s regional military policy – bombing Iraq’s embryonic nuclear reactor (which marked not the end of Saddam’s nuclear program, but really its beginning), bombing Syria’s embryonic nuclear reactor, killing Iranian nuclear scientists, killing Hezbollah’s military chief, bombing Hamas-bound arms convoys in Sudan, and, the latest obsession, bombing Hezbollah-bound arms convoys along the Lebanese-Syrian border – is more dangerous, at least in the short term, than the occupation. Any of these attacks could start a war, and eventually one of them is likely to do just that, unless you believe that Israel can go on hitting its neighbors indefinitely without them ever hitting back. (Since the 2006 war in Lebanon, the blowback has been limited to a Hezbollah terror attack that killed five Israelis on a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, and an Iranian attack on the Israeli embassy in New Delhi that injured the wife of a diplomat.)
Another way in which Israel’s regional military policy is a worse problem than the occupation is the complete acceptance of it by the country’s Jewish majority, and the apathy toward it from the Western world. That these attacks are acts of military aggression by a regional superpower using bombs to maintain its “qualitative edge” doesn’t seem to matter to anyone; Hezbollah is bad, Iran is bad, Syria is bad, they’re all bad, and Israel is good, or at least relatively good, so anything goes. (As long as it doesn’t backfire.) These enemies are “pledged to Israel’s destruction,” they’re “militant Islamists,” so Israel can attack them to its heart’s content. They don’t have to fire any missiles at Israel, they just have to possess those missiles (which are a pittance compared to Israel’s), and any Israeli bombing run on their territory automatically becomes “self-defense.”
It goes without saying that if any of the neighbors bombed Israel’s advanced weapons or killed its nuclear scientists or even tried to fly a spy plane through its airspace, which Israel does about every other day in Lebanon, it would be treated as an act of war, an attempt to destroy this country.
You would think that a nation which is so much stronger than its enemies, which attacks them time after time without getting hit back, would one day say: “What do you know – they’re afraid of me. That means I don’t have to attack them – I just have to sit on my military superiority and I’ll be safe. There’s a name for this, isn’t there? Oh yeah – deterrence.” Israel’s deterrence, as seen again in Monday night’s lethal, unanswered attack on Hezbollah, is absolutely incredible. Hezbollah, Syria, Iran – as much as they loathe Israel, as much as they’d love to attack it, not only don’t they attack, they very rarely lift a finger when Israel attacks them! Yet this country goes on doing it because it believes that if these enemies ever get even a fraction of the sophisticated weaponry Israel has, they will go for the kill.
The problem with this theory is it assumes that Iraq, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah (not to mention the Palestinians, who have been under attack 24/7 for nearly half a century) are willing to destroy themselves for the sake of destroying this country. Because no matter how strong they get, they will never be able to carry out a crushing, life-threatening attack on Israel, even with nuclear weapons, without ending up in smoking ruins themselves.
But Israeli policy is based on the assumption that its enemies are willing – no, eager – to pay that price. They are willing to die en masse for the privilege of annihilating the Jewish state. And there’s no deterrence against that, there’s only, as Prime Minister Netanyahu likes to call it, “vigilance.”
Yet what does this assumption say about Israel’s view of its enemies? That they’re not exactly human. They’re willing to sacrifice their entire country, their entire society, for the sake of destroying this one. What human society has ever been willing to do that? What species of animal has ever been homicidal to the point of collective suicide? Yet this is what Israel believes about its enemies, which is why it can’t stop bombing them. We’re up against a “culture of death.” As Golda Meir said, in one of the most beloved aphorisms of Zionist history, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”
This is what we believe: that the Arabs hate us more than they love their children.
There is a term for an attitude such as ours: “dehumanization.”
It is dehumanization of Arabs, of Muslims, that causes Israel to go on bombing its enemies even when those enemies don’t retaliate, even when they are incomparably weaker than Israel, even when it’s self-evident to Israel that those enemies know how weak they are and how strong Israel is. We bomb them because we know that if they ever stop being weak, they will kill us, even though they know we will kill them, too, because they don’t care. They hate us more than they love their own children.
They’re not human. There’s no deterrence against them. Only vigilance.
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
This month, the United Nations accused Canberra of potentially breaking international law by forcibly repelling refugee boats back to Indonesia. Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said that the international body was “concerned by any policy or practice that involved pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection.” He continued: “any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention and other international law obligations.”
The comments were brushed aside as soon as they were uttered. Prime minister Tony Abbott’s administration insists that its policies are legal and safe, and the vast bulk of Australians apparently back even harsher methods against asylum seekers. It is now clear who has won this battle, and it isn’t the forces pushing for moderation.
After 20 years of steadily increasing cruelty towards refugees, it’s time to admit that we’ve reached a stalemate. Simply arguing for a more humane approach has failed. Reason, international law and common sense are no match against inflammatory media reporting, false fears about asylum seekers living in the community, and politicians proudly punishing the most vulnerable in the name of “deterrence.”
Enter the need for a new approach, one that seriously ups the ante: sanctions against the Australian state for ignoring humanitarian law. Australia deserves nothing less. A price must be paid, in a political and economic sense, for flagrantly breaching Australian and international conventions. This could be directed at both the multinationals such as Serco and G4S, who are administering the government’s policies, and the bank accounts and assets maintained by government ministers and officials.
Australian citizens must feel this global isolation in their daily lives, and be made to realise that business as usual is a choice that will bring tough penalties. Locking up children on remote Pacific islands, without proper medical or psychological care, is designed for only one purpose: pain. States opposed to these breaches must gather together and take action, regardless of the inevitable short-term bleating from the Australian government. Activists around the world and at home must have a clear target and goal: to make Canberra believe that the ramifications are simply too high to maintain the current system of a privatised detention network.
Western state powers believe they are immune from prosecution. The idea of a senior western leader or official being charged for war crimes or abuses of power is almost unheard of. The recent news that British human rights lawyers are pushing for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute local military figures and politicians over serial breaches against detainees in Iraq after 2003 was an important reminder that it isn’t only presidents in dictatorships that might face the wrath of The Hague. We are surely not far away from a precedent being set with the sight of a London or Washington-based official found guilty for covering up systematic assaults against Iraqis or Afghans during the last decade.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, explains how the US system is designed to protect the powerful at the expense of the majority. There are countless officials after 9/11 who haven’t been jailed for ordering and performing waterboarding, sexual assaults, illegal interrogations, hiding prisoners in black sites and invading nations. President Barack Obama has ferociously protected the worst abusers, including CIA torturers, and provided immunity.
The relevance to Australia is clear. Western leaders live under the belief that they can behave as they like to the powerless and invisible. Asylum seekers are essentially voiceless, reporters are barred from visiting where they’re warehoused in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the daily drumbeat of dishonest rhetoric wrongly accuses them of being “illegal”.
Even the threat of sanctions against Australia would enrage the Abbott government and its backers. Australia is a democracy, they will claim. Australia’s decisions are checked and approved by lawyers, they may argue. Australians can vote out recalcitrant regimes, they could state.
And yet transparency over asylum seeker policy has arguably never been more absent. There are far too few journalists dedicated to investigating the refugee issue, media organisations prefer sending their “journalists” to junkets in Los Angeles promoting Australian celebrities, and the result is an immigration bureaucracy that rightly believes its actions have few consequences, shielded from censure.
Sanctions against Australia would wake them up immediately – even though the usefulness of traditional sanctions are questionable. Imagine if immigration minister Scott Morrison feared leaving the country amidst threats of questioning if he landed at Heathrow airport because of the abuse of asylum seekers in his care.
The first, obvious step is rousing worldwide support to place serious pressure on Australia and make its officials and leaders uncomfortable. Ask them tough questions in global forums. Demand they explain why dumping vulnerable men, women and children in isolated prison camps doesn’t warrant sanctions. Tell them that the humane treatment of asylum seekers, at a time when the globe is struggling to cope with millions of displaced Syrians and growing numbers of climate refugees, is vital in a connected world.
The Australian government feels invincible, protected under America’s security blanket and selling its dirty coal to the world. We are sold the myth that building remote detention camps will protect us from the “hordes” trying to enter our promised land. It’s impossible not to conclude that Australia, a colonial construction, doesn’t see itself akin to Canada, the US and Israel as countries struggling to cope with people various officials call “infiltrators”. That bubble must be burst, and the threats of sanctions will be the required shot. Until Australia and its defenders appreciate the necessity to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect, they should feel the world’s opprobrium.
Talk is no longer enough. The UN has had more than 20 years to convince Australia to abandon mandatory detention and its associated ills. Frankly, it hasn’t tried hard enough. Absent of a complete overhaul of the UN system, something that is long overdue, let legitimate legal sanctions be threatened and used.
It’s a price every Australian, myself included, should feel.
My weekly Guardian column is published below:
The sight of Australian citizens associated with the WikiLeaks party sitting and chatting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad during their recent “solidarity mission”, along with their comments about the regime, is a damning indictment on a party that ran a dismal election campaign in 2013 and has never bothered to explain its subsequent collapse.
For WikiLeaks supporters such as myself (I have been backing the group since 2006), this latest PR exercise is nothing more than an act of stunning political bastardry. It does nothing to push for true peace in Syria, and essentially amounts to a propaganda coup for a brutal dictatorship. It’s also a slap in the face to the WikiLeaks backers who are still expecting answers about why the party imploded without public review or reflection.
The problem isn’t meeting Assad himself. He’s the (unelected) leader of Syria and an essential part of any resolution of the conflict, still supported by many Syrians who fear Islamic fundamentalism. Saudi Arabian-backed extremism across the Middle East, implicitly supported by the Western powers now focused on Assad’s butchery, is spreading sectarian carnage by pitting Sunni against Shia, leading to the death of thousands. Syrian civilians are suffering the full brunt of this madness. Saudi funding for Syrian “rebels” – in essence backing Al-Qaida terrorism – is repeating the playbook used against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, enriching militants in a battle that will inevitably come back to bite the Saudis and their Western allies.
A third way is, for the time being, out of sight. And in this context, it’s hard to see how the WikiLeaks party can judiciously show solidarity to Syria’s besieged people.
When the WikiLeaks party delegation returned to Australia, various members expressed their views about the trip. Activist Jamal Daoud, who wrote in 2012 that he supported Assad, blogged that he had heard while in Syria that “the alternative to the regime is total chaos.” Although acknowledging that meetings were held with both regime and rebel representatives, Daoud clearly believes that the regime remaining in place is the ideal outcome.
John Shipton, chief executive of the party and the father of Julian Assange, spoke to ABC Radio in Melbourne to defend the mission. He mouthed the talking points of the regime itself – that they’re fighting terrorism in cities and towns across the country – and claimed that the WikiLeaks party is planning to set up an office in Damascus in 2014. “We’ll continue to expose the truth to the Australian people and to our international audience”, he said. Shipton added that as the delegation walked around Damascus, they found “a lot of support for the government” – which is undoubtedly true, but likely to be similar to journalists being taken around by minders from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and finding nearly universal backing for the dictator.
Sydney University academic Tim Anderson – who wrote in 2007 that Cuba is a democracy and the US is not, ignoring the lack of an open press and the Castro brothers’ authoritarian ruling in the process – also defended his participation in the mission after The Australian newspaper attacked him. He went on to state: “forget the absurd myth of a single man [Assad] ‘killing his own people’. That line is designed to pull the wool over our eyes. This is a ‘regime change’ exercise that went wrong, because Syria resisted.”
It is deeply problematic that Anderson and other side players downplay or brush aside the gross abuses committed by the regime, which have occurred both during the war and during Bashar and his father Hafez’s decades-long rule.
Considering how the mainstream media will spin such a trip must be a major consideration when talking about “truth” in a modern, complex war. How support for a peaceful resolution practically occurs when facts on the ground are notoriously difficult to assess should be the heart of the matter. Instead, it appears that the WikiLeaks party was caught up in an inevitable maelstrom of their own naive making. If you visit Syria and are pictured meeting Assad, you should make damn sure you’re on the front foot to rebut the likely criticisms and provide a cogent and detailed rebuttal to what you saw, and why a few WikiLeaks party members from Australia can make any difference to the war. You should also know that any “solidarity mission” to Syria will be used by either side as a way to bolster their claims and defend their own crimes, of which there have been plenty by all sides.
Moral and political clarity is vital – which is why, for example, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was rightly condemned in my view after he voiced support for Iran and Syria in the process of opposing “US imperialism“, and refused to oppose human rights abuses in both nations. Equally, being a supporter of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination shouldn’t automatically lead to backing Fatah or Hamas, two groups with a documented record of abusing their own citizens.
The situation in Syria is dire, with dirty hands on all sides. As it stands, the solution is not with the Baath party, nor the Al-Qaida-aligned rebels – but this is a decision for the Syrian people to decide. Encouraging a peaceful settlement and negotiations must be the goal. The WikiLeaks organisation remains an essential tool in holding governments to account, but its Australian-based party’s visit to Syria exposes the dangers of believing that the “enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is not.
It’s the first day of 2014 and what a way to begin the new year.
Today’s Australian newspaper features this story on page one by Jared Owens and Rick Morton. As a Wikileaks supporter since 2006, right from the beginning (and I remain a public backer of the organisation), it’s tragic to see the Wikileaks Party in Australia, after a disastrous 2013 election campaign, descend into political grandstanding. My comments below were based around tweets I sent a few days ago to former Wikileaks Campaign Director Greg Barns.
The conflict in Syria is filled with Western and Saudi hypocrisy and brutality on all sides:
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has condemned the WikiLeaks Party’s “extremely reckless” meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, warning the foray is “deeply counterproductive” and undermines sanctions placed on the pariah regime.
But John Shipton, who is Julian Assange’s father and chief executive of the WikiLeaks Party, defended his decision to meet Assad, saying it was better than siding with “the liver-eaters and the head-choppers” of the rebel opposition.
Some of WikiLeaks’ most steadfast supporters, however, joined the government and opposition in condemning the “solidarity mission” to Syria that toured Damascus and was shown in state-run media visiting senior members of the regime.
Police also disputed the regime’s claims to the delegation that Canberra had “turned a blind eye” to a prominent Sydney imam who was allegedly “responsible for” the kidnapping of 106 women and children during a massacre of civilians by jihadi rebels on August 4.
The Foreign Minister warned that the WikiLeaks mission, which claimed to represent Australia, “could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour”.
“I find it extraordinarily reckless that an organisation registered as a political party in Australia would seek to insert itself into the conflict in Syria and engage with a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using chemical weapons against his own people,” Ms Bishop told The Australian.
“Their actions could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour. Further, the Syrian regime is subject to wide-ranging sanctions and WikiLeaks’ actions are deeply counterproductive.
“Australia, as a member of the UN Security Council, is actively pursuing humanitarian efforts in Syria. It is not a place for political parties to pursue their political ends.”
Mr Shipton insisted his party’s enemies would attempt to smear the “fact-finding” mission to Syria.
He claimed the mission mirrored international efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict after almost three years of bloodshed and more than 125,000 deaths.
“We’re clearly on the right side of history here, and who would want to be on the side of the liver-eaters and the head-choppers that plague the poor people of Syria?” Mr Shipton said.
“I have no interest in supporting the Syrian government at all, or the opposition. That’s their thing they fight about.
“I’m interested in the effect on the people of Syria and the strategies the contending (regional and world) powers are putting into place there.
“In Damascus they’ve got four hours of electricity a day and random mortar fire at night … You could smell the aftermath of gunfire in the air.”
Mr Shipton was spending New Year’s Eve with Mr Assange, who is being harboured in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Ecuador supports the Syrian government and has offered asylum to Assad and his inner circle if they ask for it.
Author Antony Loewenstein, a supporter of WikiLeaks, backed “peaceful dialogue” with Assad but insisted the WikiLeaks Party’s solidarity mission “whitewashes the crimes of the regime”.
“It’s sad to see the WikiLeaks Party visit Syria and show ‘solidarity’ with Assad, a brutal dictator who is responsible for the death of countless civilians. The Saudi and Western-backed ‘rebels’ are equally complicit in war crimes,” Mr Loewenstein said. The head of the Islamic Friendship Association, Keysar Trad, accused the WikiLeaks Party of blatant hypocrisy for giving Assad the publicity coup of being visited by an Australian delegation.
“It’s very disappointing to see WikiLeaks, which supports openness and human rights, to be meeting with one of the biggest human rights abusers of our time,” Mr Trad said.
“It’s disrespectful to all the families who have been victims of the Assad regime.”
Mr Trad defended the prominent Sydney imam whom Syrian officials claimed was involved in the kidnapping of 106 women and children during a massacre of civilians by rebels in the province of Latakia on August 4.
These claims were made to the WikiLeaks delegation.
Mr Trad said he personally knew the imam, describing him as an eminent scholar and respected member of the Australian community.
It was implausible that the sheik would have been involved in any form of violent activity in Syria, he said.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas yesterday said NSW Police had not heard of any such claims against the imam. Mr Kaldas said federal agencies would routinely alert NSW Police about any such allegations concerning someone from NSW.
Opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen described the WikiLeaks mission as an “extraordinary” and “irresponsible” development that was “surprising even for them”.
“The Assad regime has been widely criticised, and correctly criticised around the world, and for an Australian political party to think it’s sensible to go and have discussions and try to provide some legitimacy is something which they have to explain and they would find very difficult to explain how that’s a sensible, responsible or appropriate thing to do,” Mr Bowen.
But three other senior WikiLeaks party figures – former Senate candidates Alison Broinowski, Gerry Georgatos and deputy chairman Omar Todd – backed the delegation’s motives.
Mr Georgatos likened it to the first olive branches offered to South African leaders that ultimately dismantled apartheid.
The Greens declined an opportunity to comment.
Mr Shipton said individual delegates – himself, University of Sydney academic Tim Anderson (who was acquitted of the 1978 Sydney Hilton bombing), Sydney Shia activist Jamal Daoud and WikiLeaks activist Gail Malone – paid the “pretty weighty” cost of the tour. But he declined to estimate how much he had paid.
He denied seeking any favours from the Syrian regime, saying they “were getting impatient with us and were glad to see us gone”.
Mr Shipton said he had asked a team of Syrian journalists to become their Damascus “transparency office”, sending “proper information” back to Sydney about the conflict.
“We did find, wandering around the place talking to people, a lot of support for the government. They seemed to be quite warm towards their government and as the crisis has unfolded their support has grown,” he said.
Their translator, western Sydney-based Mr Daoud, is a well-known opponent of the anti-Assad insurgency.
Mr Shipton said there were no formal links between the WikiLeaks Party and Dr Anderson, a former member of the Ananda Marga religious sect who was jailed and later acquitted of the terrorist bombing of the Sydney Hilton that killed two council workers and a police officer in 1978.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING: EAN HIGGINS, CAMERON STEWART
UPDATE: The Guardian published the following story about this Wikileaks story on 1 January by Oliver Milman:
WikiLeaks has revealed it did not “know or approve” of its Australian political party’s visit to Syria to meet Bashar al-Assad, amid criticism from both the government and Labor over the trip.
A WikiLeaks party delegation, reportedly including its founder Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, held talks with a number of high-ranking Syrian officials, with a picture released by the Syrian government of ameeting with the president himself.
Before the visit, the party stated it was going as part of its “peace and reconciliation” efforts, as well as warning over the dangers of western intervention into the bloody three-year Syrian civil war. Shipton said he wanted to show “solidarity” with the Syrian people and told a local TV station that WikiLeaks would be opening an office in Damascus this year.
But WikiLeaks has distanced itself from the trip, saying via Twitter that while peace brokering is a “good idea”, it “did not know or approve” of the delegation’s visit to Syria.
Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign affairs minister, said Syria was not a place for “political parties to pursue their political ends”.
“I find it extraordinarily reckless that an organisation registered as a political party in Australia would seek to insert itself into the conflict in Syria and engage with a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using chemical weapons against his own people,” Bishop told The Australian newspaper.
“Their actions could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour. Further, the Syrian regime is subject to wide-ranging sanctions and WikiLeaks’ actions are deeply counterproductive”.
Labor has also criticised the visit, with Chris Bowen, the shadow treasurer, calling the decision “extraordinary”.
“The Assad regime has been widely criticised and correctly criticised around the world,” he said.
“And for an Australian political party to think it’s sensible to go and have discussions and try and provide some legitimacy, is something I think which they have to explain.”
It’s understood that the visit was initially intended as a “fact-finding” mission before meetings with Syrian government officials were brokered. Members of the visiting group, which included the academic Tim Anderson and activists Jamal Daoud and Gail Malone, are expected back in Australia next week.
Several former members of the WikiLeaks party have told Guardian Australia the trip has caused further consternation within the party, which was formed last year but endured a fraught federal election campaign after several of its candidates resigned amid dissatisfaction over preferencing and internal party processes.
Antony Loewenstein, an author and long-term supporter of WikiLeaks – although never a member of the political party – told Guardian Australia the situation was a “sad state of affairs”.
“I don’t think meeting Assad is the issue, although he is a brutal dictator, no doubt about it,” he said. “The problem is the optics of it, that they are being used as a prop by a regime that has undeniably killed tens of thousands or more civilians.”
The WikiLeaks party has been contacted for comment on the trip but not responded.
One of the great unspoken truths of the 21st century. After this week’s shocking terrorist acts in Russia, it’s possible (though impossible to know) that Saudi Arabia may be behind the carnage (they threatened as much a few months ago).
The venerable Patrick Cockburn, writing in the UK Independent, on the ominous signs of sectarian madness in the Middle East and globally. The West turns a blind eye:
Anti-Shia hate propaganda spread by Sunni religious figures sponsored by, or based in, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, is creating the ingredients for a sectarian civil war engulfing the entire Muslim world. Iraq and Syria have seen the most violence, with the majority of the 766 civilian fatalities in Iraq this month being Shia pilgrims killed by suicide bombers from the al-Qa’ida umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). The anti-Shia hostility of this organisation, now operating from Baghdad to Beirut, is so extreme that last month it had to apologise for beheading one of its own wounded fighters in Aleppo – because he was mistakenly believed to have muttered the name of Shia saints as he lay on a stretcher.
At the beginning of December, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula killed 53 doctors and nurses and wounded 162 in an attack on a hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, which had been threatened for not taking care of wounded militants by a commentator on an extreme Sunni satellite TV station. Days before the attack, he announced that armies and tribes would assault the hospital “to take revenge for our brothers. We say this and, by the grace of Allah, we will do it”.
Skilled use of the internet and access to satellite television funded by or based in Sunni states has been central to the resurgence of al-Qa’ida across the Middle East, to a degree that Western politicians have so far failed to grasp. In the last year, Isis has become the most powerful single rebel military force in Iraq and Syria, partly because of its ability to recruit suicide bombers and fanatical fighters through the social media. Western intelligence agencies, such as the NSA in the US, much criticised for spying on the internet communications of their own citizens, have paid much less attention to open and instantly accessible calls for sectarian murder that are in plain view. Critics say that this is in keeping with a tradition since 9/11 of Western governments not wishing to hold Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies responsible for funding extreme Sunni jihadi groups and propagandists supporting them through private donations.
Satellite television, internet, YouTube and Twitter content, frequently emanating from or financed by oil states in the Arabian peninsula, are at the centre of a campaign to spread sectarian hatred to every corner of the Muslim world, including places where Shia are a vulnerable minority, such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Malaysia. In Benghazi, in effect the capital of eastern Libya, a jihadi group uploaded a video of the execution of an Iraqi professor who admitted to being a Shia, saying they had shot him in revenge for the execution of Sunni militants by the Iraqi government.
There is now a fast-expanding pool of jihadis willing to fight and die anywhere. The Saudis and the Gulf monarchies may find, as happened in Afghanistan 30 years ago, that, by funding or tolerating the dissemination of Sunni-Shia hate, they have created a sectarian Frankenstein’s monster of religious fanatics beyond their control.
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
2013 was the year of Edward Snowden. The former NSA contractor, voted the Guardian’s person of the year (after Chelsea Manning the year before), unleashed a vital global debate on the extent of mass surveillance in the modern age. “Among the casualties”, writes one reporter, “is the assumption that some of the nation’s most carefully guarded secrets will stay secret.”
This is a uniformly positive development, despite the bleating from countless intelligence insiders, media commentators, the vast bulk of the US Washington elite and a media class that has largely forgotten how to operate without being on the official drip feed. The general public does not accept patronising claims by NSA backers that its tools are used to protect us from terrorism.
A mature debate about post 9/11 spying is essential, something that’s almost impossible to offer when politicians who should know better – I’m looking at you, Australian minister for communications Malcolm Turnbull – slam journalists for doing their job.
So in 2014, reporters have a choice: to either continue being regarded as untrustworthy pariahs (a recent Gallop poll in the US confirmed this belief amongst the general population), or as investigators on power. In this spirit, here are my suggestions for reporters to regain trust – so that all of us finally remember what adversarial journalism looks like in a robust democracy.
Be deeply skeptical of anonymously-sourced stories
Too many stories appearing in the mainstream media are sourced to one, often anonymous source. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance union states in its code of ethics that a reporter should “aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source.” This is routinely breached as journalists prefer to receive sanctioned leaks from officials, government and opposition ministers and advisors and sympathetic business players. It’s lazy and counter-productive, because the story becomes little more than propaganda dressed-up with a byline. Journalists don’t need to leave their air-conditioned offices, and they rarely do.
Think of this year’s main story: Syria reportedly using chemical weapons against its own civilians (despite serious concerns about the truth of the claim and President Obama’s questionable use of intelligence, as raised in a recent article by legendary reporter Seymour Hersh that has barely raised a ripple). When the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a one-man operation in Britain – is so routinely cited as a source of Syrian casualties in the media, it becomes problematic. The truth from inside Syria is notoriously tough to get, but editors should acknowledge that they often do not know what’s happening on the ground.
Moreover, journalists should only grant anonymity to sources if it’s absolutely essential. The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan chastised her paper for failing to learn the lesson of history (hello, Iraq and WMDs?) and continuing to allow officials to give a clear agenda without attribution. “ One part of the solution”, she wrote, “is for reporters to push back harder against sources who request anonymity. This may not work on high-stakes national security coverage, but it certainly will in other areas.” Too often journalists will allow a source to be quoted anonymously because they’re desperate to find legitimacy to boost their stories’ credibility. The result is a yarn that will please those in power, yet strong journalism should always bring discomfort for those elected to rule us.
No more opinion pieces by sitting politicians
Our media landscape is polluted by politicians pushing a partisan line. An example: on Christmas Eve, Australia’s Liberal assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos wrote in The Australian that the economy was once again booming after Labor administration’s apparent mismanagement. It’s a press release that any self-respecting editor would refuse to print. Likewise, ABC TV’s Q&A should ban politicians, because they offer little more than hackneyed lines produced by overpaid PR agents.
Decent media outlets would tell politicians (and the advisors who often write the columns) that political point-scoring is tiresome. The job of a robust press isn’t to simply provide a carte blanche for our leaders to freely pontificate.
Increasing the ‘Snowden effect’
The rolling coverage of documents leaked by Snowden will continue into 2014 but the big challenge, as Dan Gillmor articulates in the Nieman Journalism Lab, is to:
“use the documents to identify and amplify an issue of such importance and scope that it doesn’t flame up and out in the manner of most stories … In 2014 and beyond, journalists should be inspired by the Snowden effect. They should focus more on critical mass – how to achieve it and how to sustain it. If journalism is to matter, we can’t just raise big topics. We have to spread them, and then sustain them.”
Wikileaks pioneered this publishing model, with countless media outlets around the world covering documents that relates directly to their country. Many others should follow this inspiring lead. It’s the opposite of parochial reporting, and it forces often reluctant competing publications to collaborate on key stories. Competition for leads, and a refusal to recognise that the internet makes such old traditions close to obsolete, hampers innovative journalism.
Cherish the importance of public broadcasters
Who can forget James Murdoch, himself involved in the British phone hacking scandal, telling the Edinburgh TV festival in 2009 that the size of the BBC was “chilling” and that it was mounting a “land grab” in a competitive media market? “The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it”, he said, “and what is good for the country.” Such sentiments are routinely mouthed by Murdoch hacks in Australia, where innumerable editorials dare to demand the ABC prostrate themselves before the surveillance state and not damage the “national interest”.
The BBC has its issues – more scrutiny should be applied to its war coverage – but its existence is a challenge to commercial interests and a threat to market fundamentalism. In Australia the ABC, successfully bullied during the Howard years from 1996 to 2007 and intimidated from pursuing countless controversial stories, faces renewed pressures to kowtow to government whims. Constant pressure works, often through self-censorship – something I examined in my book My Israel Question over the Middle East issue. Producers, journalists and editors must resist any attempt to remove or soften stories with the potential to embarrass the powerful. The inherent dangers of taxpayer funded media in such a climate are clear.
Please share below your ideas about how to bring greater strength to the media and mechanisms to hold journalism, governments and business to account. We’ll all benefit from sharing ideas rather than believing one person or group has all the answers.
The kind of debate that can prove either endlessly boring or vitally important for the health of democracy. Take your pick.
The beautifully produced literary magazine Island asked me recently, after deep coverage of the new book by writer Tim Dunlop called The New Front Page, to write a few words about my vision for a more robust press:
The corporate media talks down to its readers and viewers. The general public likes to consume news in small, easily digested bites, the supposed experts tell us. Nothing too complex.
This may be true for many of the population but not all. The internet has thankfully broken the ability for mainstream reporters to believe they have the right to pontificate and we all should listen.
From Iraq in 2003 to Syria in 2013 and the global financial crisis in 2008, there are countless reasons why alternative perspectives are required and following the herd, a favourite pastime of insider media, has often been destructive and wrong. Trust is in short supply and yet even raising such issues brings defensiveness from the merry band of journalists who call themselves professionals. The relationship between consumer and producer is frayed.
Well-resourced journalism is vital but the Canberra and state press galleries almost guarantee groupthink. Ethical, trained and accountable citizen reporters could regularly write from their areas. Blogging and tweeting should be obligatory. Relying on political ‘experts’ from Labor and Liberal, has reduced political debate to partisan rants. Use only when desperate. Include the list of talent to a) individuals from non-white back- grounds, b) individuals in areas away from the inner cities, c) the disadvantaged and d) anybody under forty- five without a close connection to a politician/adviser/ hanger-on/hack.
This is not a call to dismantle the mainstream press – its resources still dwarf independent alternatives – but to recognise that working for mainstream news doesn’t give you all the knowledge. In fact, it probably means you’re residing in a bubble. Get out more. The more people the media engages, the more likely it’ll be respected. It’s not that complicated.