The coronavirus has spread to virtually every country of the world, but due to differences in privilege and access to resources, many countries are unable to adequately address this pandemic as well as other countries are. However, for countries in the Middle East, in addition to these differentials, the pandemic has also further exacerbated many preexisting problems that the region faces, namely political, economic, and social unrest. While this outbreak has had ramifications on several facets of life in the Middle East, this blog post will be focusing on the outbreak’s impact on sectarianism and the refugee crisis.
The Middle East is marred by the Sunni-Shia conflict, and geopolitics are heavily influenced by this divide. Because of this, the divide is often invoked when something disastrous occurs in the region, with each side blaming the other, and the coronavirus outbreak has proven to be no exception. Although the coronavirus has spread to all Middle Eastern countries, Iran, a Shia-majority country, has been disproportionately impacted; as of March 31st, Iran has had 44,605 coronavirus cases and 2,898 deaths, making it one of the countries with the most cases in the world. Further, Iran has now been identified as the source of spread to other Middle Eastern countries; some of the earliest identified cases in the Middle East were all of people who had recently traveled to Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran. Despite the fact that people were aware of the outbreak in Iran, visitations to holy shrines in Iran were not discouraged, and people continued to travel to these holy sites. Any large gatherings during this time pose a risk, but shrine visitations are especially risky; many people engage in practices at shrines, such as kissing and touching the shrines, that lead to an increased likelihood of spreading. Since the outbreak is speculated to have spread from Qom, the city where one of the holiest shrines, the shrine of Sayyida Fatima al-Zahraa, is located, it is not unlikely that transmission did occur like this.
Because the spread has been identified as coming from Iran, many Sunni-majority countries in the Middle East have used this as an opportunity to justify further prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims. For example, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia who recently traveled to Iran for shrine visitations were labeled as traitors, leading some to call for their execution. In other countries, such as Lebanon, preexisting sectarian conflict has only gotten worse. It has been claimed that the first case in Lebanon came from Iran, leading many to blame the Shia Muslim population of Lebanon. Further, the Lebanese government continued to allow flights from Iran up until mid-March. Due to this, many have criticized Iran’s influence in Lebanon, specifically its influence on the government.
Despite the scarcity of resources and bleak outlook for refugee camps, measures have been taken to ensure that refugees are protected as best as they can be from the coronavirus. For example, many refugee camps have been sanitized with anti-bacterial spray. Certain organizations, such as Islamic Relief, have donated supplies, including rubbing alcohol and medicine that treats certain symptoms of the coronavirus, to ensure that if an outbreak does occur within a camp, there are some necessary resources available. Finally, the UNHCR has appealed governments for $33 million in funds to provide refugees access to hygiene kits, protective gear, and sanitary water, among other things, that could help deter the spread of the coronavirus.
Recently, an IHR Intern wrote a blog about racism and discrimination that arises during outbreaks such as this one. While Asians have largely been victims to racism during this period, in the Middle East, Iran and Shia Muslims have been targeted, highlighting that people do indeed try to blame such events on others when, in reality, there is no one that should be blamed. Further, times like this also highlight the level of privilege many of us live in; while we have the privilege to access resources and to distance ourselves from one another, other groups who lack such privileges, namely refugees, cannot practice any of these things. Thus, while we are all impacted by this outbreak, it is important to recognize that many people, in addition to worrying about the coronavirus, face other obstacles during this time as well, and these groups should be kept in mind.
“Wash your hands.” “Avoid close contact with others.” “Stay home.” These are the CDC’s recommendations for protecting yourself against the coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19. For those of us fortunate enough to have clean water and soap and space and a home, that is helpful advice and easy enough to follow, even if it is somewhat of a disruption to our normal lives. Unfortunately, these recommendations are completely irrelevant to the millions of people across the globe who live in conflict zones and refugee camps where fresh water is scarce, sanitary facilities are lacking, and the healthcare infrastructure has been decimated by war and continuous violence. In places where day to day survival is already a key concern, the novel coronavirus poses a new kind of threat, one that the struggling healthcare systems in these countries is not prepared to take on.
While the U.S. government and media have focused on individual vulnerabilities, such as age and underlying respiratory conditions, very little has been done to address social and structural vulnerabilities, including limited access to basic services, health care, safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Overcrowded refugee camps are a virus’ dream – they provide conditions in which the virus can spread rapidly and easily. Individuals living in these places are already prone to respiratory problems due to air pollution and living in close quarters. Unsanitary conditions and lack of housing, food, and clean water exacerbate the risk of contracting an infectious disease, and the lack of access to basic health care makes fighting any kind of infection difficult. The coronavirus is highly contagious and has a very high global mortality rate, even in places where social distancing and healthcare are accessible, and this rate will likely be significantly higher in conflict zones where large numbers of displaced people live. Preventing the virus from entering these spaces is the only hope, but as Dr. Esperanza Martinez, head of health for the International Committee of the Red Cross, has said, “this is uncharted territory,” and it is unclear how effective containment strategies will be in reality (or if they are even possible in certain places).
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 126 million people around the world are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 70 million who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, mostly due to violence. COVID-19 is adding a new layer of uncertainty and fear to the already precarious and vulnerable status of these individuals and families. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration have suspended refugee resettlement programs, and many governments worldwide have stopped the intake of refugees who are fleeing violence and food insecurity. Cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in war-torn areas in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, and Ninevah, a displaced persons camp in Iraq, as well as in several African countries, including war-torn Libya, Cameroon, and the Congo. This post considers how this global pandemic will likely impact people living in three particularly dangerous and vulnerable countries in the Middle East and West Africa: Syria, Yemen, and Burkina Faso.
Nine years into the seemingly endless civil war in Syria, more than 380,000 people have died, dozens of towns and cities razed to the ground and half of the country’s entire population displaced. Targeted attacks have left Syria’s once thriving public health care system in shambles. Hospitals and clinics have been destroyed or damaged to the point of not functioning. Medicine and medical supplies are limited, healthcare workers are few, and travel to the still-operational clinics and hospitals is out of the question for many of the sick and suffering. Of particular concern is the refugee camp in Idlib, a town in the northwestern province near Turkey, where many displaced individuals now live. The conditions of the camp are dire – there is limited access to soap and water and overcrowding makes social distancing impossible – so self-protecting is a major challenge.
Syria reported its first case of coronavirus a few days ago, from a woman who had recently traveled to Iran, a country that is backing the Syrian government in the civil war and where Shia pilgrims frequently travel. There are now five confirmed cases (the actual number is suspected to be much higher), and there is growing fear that the virus is spreading unimpeded throughout the northwest, where there is limited capacity to test and monitor the situation, but experts have warned that “if the disease starts, it will spread massively.” Jan Egeland, director general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has warned that COVID-19 could “decimate refugee communities.” Containment is the only hope, but the shortage of supplies, including test kits, makes this unlikely.
The United Nations has labeled the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed yet in Yemen, but the country is bracing for a devastating catastrophe if and when the virus arrives. Since the U.S.-backed war in Yemen began five years ago, Saudi and Emirati coalitions have leveled 120 attacks on medical facilities throughout the country. These attacks, including airstrikes, ground-launched mortar and rockets, and attempts to occupy hospitals and clinics, have led to widespread disruptions in access and service to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women, children, and persons with disability. With a mere 51% of the country’s health centers operational, there is a severe shortage of medicine and medical equipment. Even if people in this area can get to a hospital, many hospitals don’t have electricity, rendering a ventilator — a potentially life-saving device for people suffering the most severe symptoms of COVID-19 — out of the question. The decimated healthcare infrastructure is unable to control preventable disease (there was a cholera outbreak a few years ago) and is completely ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. Both the Houthi rebel group (aligned with Iran) and the government recognize the threat the virus poses and are implementing precautionary measures, such as closing schools and halting flights into the area. However, both sides are amping up their rhetoric and are posed to blame the other if and when cases of COVID-19 are confirmed. The United States, for its part, has cut off emergency aid to Yemen, citing the Houthi’s interference in the distribution of supplies and services to starving Yemenis (likely a Saudi-directed approach), but humanitarian officials have warned that this decision will create major funding gaps in efforts to provide hand soap and medicine to clinics and to staff health centers with trained healthcare workers. Yemen’s basic healthcare programs are heavily reliant on foreign aid – about 8 out of 10 Yeminis rely on some form of aid.Eliminating this source of funding could mean suffering and death for millions of displaced persons in Yemen.
On March 18, Burkina Faso, the impoverished West African country of 20 million people, registered its first confirmed case of COVID-19. A week and a half later, that number leapt to146 cases, with hundreds more suspected, making it the hardest hit West African country so far. This tiny, conflict-scarred country is no stranger to hardships, including poverty, drought, rampant hunger, and militia-led coups. In 2019, clashes between government forces and militia groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda led to more than 2,000 deaths in Burkina Faso and forced more than 700,000 people to flee their homes. This escalation of violence has led to the closure of 135 health centers in the country, and an additional 140 have reduced their services, leaving 1.5 million Burkinabe in dire need of humanitarian health assistance. With a healthcare system that has been ravaged by war, a mere three facilities in the country are able to carry out the tests, and only a few hundred test kits have been provided. As part of the government’s response, Malian refugees once displaced into Burkina Faso are being forced back into Mali, where ongoing violence inhibits humanitarian and medical access to affected populations. COVID-19 will exacerbate an already dire situation — it is feared that an outbreak would see fatality rates of ten times higher than the global average. “These populations are already very vulnerable to diseases that are otherwise easy to treat,” says Alexandra Lamarche, senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International, “but that’s not the case when they have no access to water or proper sanitation or health care.” She adds, “We could watch entire populations vanish.”
Against a common enemy?
Rarely does a disaster – natural or otherwise – affect the entire world. The coronavirus is a different story, unlike anything we have witnessed in the modern age. It is exposing the fragility of even the most advanced economic, technological, social and medical systems, and it poses a grave threat to humans the world over. The virus doesn’t discriminate on the basis of status or religion or skin color or any of the other things that divide us or give us cause to fight each other. It travels across borders and between enemies, and the more people it infects, the greater the risk for everyone. Just like the virus, the distribution of basic human rights must not be qualified on the basis of anything other than humanity. Turning a blind eye to the suffering and inadequate conditions of the world’s most vulnerable populations only facilitates the spread of the virus. In a practical sense, limiting the spread of the virus in refugee camps and conflict zones in Yemen and Syria and West Africa is just as important as it is in wealthy countries if the goal is to eliminate the virus and end this global pandemic. That requires distributing resources and investing in large-scale infrastructure improvements in places where people are not able to follow the protocols for containment under the current conditions. As we scramble to make enough surgical-grade masks for healthcare workers in the United States to wear, we need to be concerned with sending as many as possible to medical facilities in places around the world that are under-served and over-taxed, including displaced persons camps. We cannot hope to protect ourselves if we refuse to protect our fellow humans, no matter the distance or cultural difference between us. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called this “the true fight of our lives,” insisting that we put aside our differences, which now seem small and inconsequential, and turn our aggression toward a common enemy. “That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”
I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.
Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.
The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.
Freedom of Speech
The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.
Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.
This past winter break, I visited Saudi Arabia with my family. While there, I noticed that many women were active in the work force, working as police officers, salespeople, and even airport security. Under the preconceived notion that women were not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised to see this. Slowly, I began to realize that the Western perspective about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was not entirely correct. So, after I came back from my trip, I decided to look into different sources to try to get an accurate portrayal of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
Women’s Rights Narrative
After conducting extensive research, I realized that while there is no denying that Saudi Arabia still has many improvements to make in terms of gender equality, there are several women’s rights that have been historically implemented or are currently being established. Almost always, women in Saudi Arabia are portrayed as oppressed, and again, while there is an undeniable lack of many rights for women, it is not a fair assessment to only discuss what rights are not realized; it is important to recognize the rights that they have as well. While I cannot say for certain why this particular narrative is often propagated, it can be argued that the mainstream media is committed to portraying Islam in a negative light, and because Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law, or Islamic Law, it follows that it will be portrayed negatively. As the media does this, people begin to argue that Islam is in and of itself misogynistic and is thus incompatible with progress and civilization. While I will not be going in too much depth about the rights Islam gives women, I will note that it is important to remember that culture and religion are not interchangeable terms and should not be treated as such; Saudi Arabia may govern using Sharia Law, but many of their restrictive practices are rooted in culture, not Islam. Thus, the purpose of this post is to provide a counter-narrative to show that what the media portrays pertaining to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is not an entirely accurate depiction.
While there is a dearth of women in the employment sector, seen through the fact that only 22 percent of Saudi womenparticipate in the workforce, there are no legal restrictions on which jobs women are allowed to work in, with garbage collecting and construction being the only exceptions to this. Sharia Law encourages women to work, so the lack of women in the work force is not due to restrictive religious practices, but rather to restrictive cultural practices. Further, Sharia Law allows women to earn and manage their own finances, making employment especially appealing to women who want to be financially independent. While the number of working women is low, Saudi Arabia is currently attempting to further integrate women into the workforce, with a goal of a 30 percent participation rate by 2030. While this is mostly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia wants to replace non-Saudi workers with Saudi Arabian citizens, it is still commendable that women are a part of this plan.
Perhaps most interesting is the emphasis Saudi Arabia has placed on women’s education. Saudi women have had access to education for several decades; women have been attending universities since the 1970s. Recent advances made highlight the country’s commitment to providing opportunities for women in education, namely the 2005 study abroad program, which sends thousands of Saudi women to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, to obtain an education. Another very impressive advancement is Saudi Arabia’s first all-women’s college, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, founded in 2010. The purpose of the school is to give women better access to fields that are traditionally male dominated, such as medicine and pharmacology. Due to these improvements and the general importance placed on women’s education, women currently represent 52 percent of university students in Saudi Arabia.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has invested in specific spheres of women’s rights, such as employment and education, and in recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has made progress by rescinding many restrictive practices and laws. When Saudi Arabia is included in the discourse pertaining to the rights of women, none of this is mentioned; only the shortcomings are. While I am the first to admit that Saudi Arabia still has much work to do in terms of women’s rights and human rights in general, it is important to acknowledge what they have done right.
In early August, Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, went out with her soon-to-be fiancé on a chaperoned date. As all couples often do, Israa and her fiancé posted a video of their time together on social media. This innocent, loving video would soon incriminate Israa; after seeing the video, three male members of her family were angered, claiming that she had dishonored the family by appearing in public with a man who was not yet her husband. A few days later, these relatives physically attacked Israa, and due to her injuries resulting from this attack, she was hospitalized. Shortly after her hospitalization, a video filmed outside of Israa’s hospital room circulated online, in which Israa’s screams and intermittent thuds can be audibly heard; she was being beaten again. Israa died a day later. However, it is unfair to merely state that she died; Israa was murdered, the victim of an honor killing.
What are Honor Killings?
Honor killings and crimes are committed against a family member who is deemed to have acted socially or culturally unacceptably, and thus is seen to be bringing dishonor to the family. These are almost always carried out by male relatives, and the victim is almost always a woman; 93 percent of honor killing victims are women. According to the United Nations, 5,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings every year. Thus, while males are sometimes victims of honor killings as well, the following discourse pertaining to honor killings will focus solely on female victims.
What’s to Blame?
It is important to begin by noting that honor killings are strictly rooted in culture. Because honor killings are largely carried out in the Middle East/North Africa regions and South Asia, which are Muslim majority areas, Islam is often blamed for encouraging this practice. However, Islam cannot be identified as the culprit in these situations, as it strictly opposes such treatment of women. Further, women being murdered by male relatives or partners is not exclusive to Muslim majority countries; in France, 120 women were killed by their partners in 2018. Considering this is a phenomenon that is not restricted to one culture or region, the culprit is something that is shared across most societies of the world: misogyny, or prejudice against women. Most societies are still largely patriarchal, and thus have problems with women’s rights. While this is the case, many men within these societies are aware of the injustices women face and advocate for change, so it would be unfair to label all men as misogynistic. At the same time, though, many other men do ascribe to misogynistic ideologies, and often times, they act upon them. Honor killings are a blatant example of this; when males believe that their honor is tied to the behavior of the women in their lives, it is clear that misogyny is to blame. Further, to kill a girl in “honor” is to suggest that the girl is not her own person, but rather an object that is owned, emphasizing the misogyny underlying honor killings.
“The devil is not in the body of women; it is in your mind,” a powerful statement that was displayed on a sign of one of the protestors, is a fundamental notion that must be understood. The ideas that women are inherently inferior, and that women’s bodies are for men to control, are ideas that must be eradicated from our cultures and from predominant male thinking. To do this, certain steps must be taken. First, there needs to be a cultural upheaval involving both men and women to put an end to misogynistic belief systems. This is an effort that begins at a very grassroot level, and starts with changing mentalities of future generations; when boys and girls are raised the same, when boys are taught to respect and value women, when girls are empowered and are made to believe that they are not subservient or inferior to men, we slowly move towards making misogynistic ideologies obsolete. It is important to note this is not an effort that must only be undertaken by communities in the Arab world, but rather is an effort that should be undertaken by communities world-wide. Second, laws need to be put into place to hold men accountable for their abuse of women. It is insufficient to merely pass laws without also enforcing them, as men will believe that they can get away with their crimes without suffering any consequences.
Until the aforementioned changes are made within these societies, it is unlikely that any progress will be made. However, this is not an option; these societies were complicit in the deaths of many women and girls, including Israa. While they cannot bring back the lives that were taken, they must make these changes to ensure no more lives are taken in the name of “honor.”
The Second Arab Spring has risen, but this time it is much more peaceful, democratic, and youth-centered than the first. Why is this important?
2011 was quite the year for everyone except me. I still attended elementary school, could not ride a bike or swim, and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Although nothing great happened to me, the world had changed drastically for those in the Middle East, especially the youth. That event, which changed the way many Arabs and Middle Easterners viewed their governments, was called the Arab Spring. Fast forward to 2019, I’m a freshman at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and Middle Easterners are fighting for equality and a democratic style of government. Then and now, human rights violations such as inequality and representation serve as focal points for protest and revolution, allowing for them to stand up for what they believe in and fundamentally change their government.
So, what exactly was the Arab Spring?
Basically, the Arab Spring consisted of many pro-democracy protests that took place in many majority-Muslim countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain. Like many other social movements, the Arab Spring started with a “single act of defiance.”
In December of 2010, a street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, from Tunisia set himself on fire to protest the seizing of his vegetable stand by the police due to him not getting a permit. Bouazizi’s sacrifice set aflame the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, where the many protestors fighting for more social freedoms caused Tunisia’s authoritarian president for 20+ years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to renounce his position and flee the country. This revolution in Tunisia had caused the country to become more socially democratic and involve the people in its political process due to Tunisia’s first elections occurring in 2011.
Such a great change in government by a country in the Middle East had caused others in the region to also protest, with protests occurring in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, although many succeeded and others failed.
Although Bouazizi’s death served as a catalyst for the spreading of pro-democracy fervor, the death of Egypt’s Khaled Said by police officers became another martyr in the fight for democracy. Through his death, an Egyptian Google Executive from Dubai by the name of Wael Ghoneim became a prominent activist, creating a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said,” bringing in thousands of members.
Egypt’s Arab Spring, springing from Said’s death, called for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, then President of Egypt. After resigning, he was “charged with ordering the deaths of protesters,” of which “more than 800 people were killed.” Once Mubarak stepped down, a former political prisoner by the name of Mohamed Morsy came into power democratically. Although he was chosen by the people, Morsy made it so that no court could overturn his decisions, solidifying him as an autocrat. After many protests and conflicts with the Egyptian military, Morsy “was ousted in a military coup,” leading to the establishment of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s former military chief, as President through 96% of the vote.
Was the Arab Spring ultimately successful across the Middle East?
Although there were some democratic successes in both Tunisia and Egypt through electing leaders democratically, other countries in the Middle East, such as Libya and Yemen resulted in continued conflict and war many years after the Arab Spring.
Libya, though ousting Muammar Gaddafi from his reign, remains in conflict. Libya has essentially been divided through the many militias and political factions that exist today, fighting endlessly to grab power. The situation has been so rampant that many “migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are forced” to dangerously travel to Europe through the Mediterranean, all in an effort to flee human trafficking and violence.
At first, Yemen successfully removed its President of 30 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, instead of a democratic response, an “armed uprising and foreign military intervention” caused Yemen to undergo a brutal civil war. It is through this war that Yemen experienced the worst cholera outbreak, large-scale famines across the country, and the killing of many civilians through bombs and landmines. These issues continue to be present, with no end in sight as to when it will end.
So, the Arab Spring, although deadly, resulted in some Middle Eastern countries to move towards democracy and others toward chaos and autocracy. It’s not like there’s going to be any other event like this soon, right?
The protesters do not trust any political leader. They believe that current leaders have not kept to their economic promises and reforms. And as such, many want to start over and introduce new politicians and parties.
The protests are peaceful. Unlike protests from before, many current protests lean pacifist, even through brutal responses from the military. It is through these protests that widespread support is achieved and that countries are willing to listen.
The protesters are rejecting sectarian divisions. In Lebanon, for example, religion and ethnic identity form a crucial part of how the government is formed and how people are treated. These protesters have essentially decided to do away with these divisive tactics and move towards equalizing all in government.
These characteristics directly coincide with many Algerian protests that began on February of 2019. During a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Doha Center in partnership with Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Haoues Taguia, a researcher for the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, described how Algerians are distancing themselves from being a parallel to the Arab Spring. He noted that these protests are relatively peaceful, combined with the fact that a large portion of the population from “all walks of life” came to participate, legitimizing the movement. Due to a lack of leadership within the movement, these protests will be initially successful, but chaos would ensue in the years to come without a solid and stable leadership structure. During the same event, Shafeeq Garba, a professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, also advised that other civilians of MENA countries should follow Algeria’s example in order to create dialogue for change. He noted that “in the violent alternatives to this, civil wars, everyone loses, and that if these revolutions don’t succeed, they will ultimately lead to failed states.”
Lebanon is another interesting case where protests are fundamentally changing the way that a legitimate government should operate. These protests came to fruition on October 17 due to new taxes on WhatsApp calls, which caused protesters to light “fires on main roads and [block] highways, while banks, schools, and universities closed.” This new tax became the tipping point for those agitated with the Lebanese government and how their politicians are manipulating the wealth and resources that Lebanon contains. Protesters have gone so far as to create a human chain across the country as a form of protest while also involving more and more students into the fray. According to Fatima al-Sheikh, a freshman student protester, many students thought that the sectarian leaders “looked out for [their] interests, even though [the students] knew they were corrupt and oppressive. But now [the students] feel that with our hearts, and we can’t go back from that.” These protests have raged on for more than a month. With elections soon, only time will tell whether or not these protests will ultimately succeed or rather be only one of many protests in the MENA region that result in chaos and a fractured country.
Arab Spring 2.0 may only seem like a relatively new phenomenon for the MENA region now, due to the rippling effects the first Arab Spring had and still has to this day in countries like Yemen and Libya. However, rising protests against a corrupt and unfair government have spawned all over the world, from Latin America (my recent post concerning Chile’s protests) to the Middle East. Since many of these protests have been led by students it just really comes to show how concerned many college-aged people are about whether or not their respective government will be able to fairly implement policies that benefit the entire nation rather than just the ruling class. In terms of Lebanon and Algeria, both countries are fighting to revamp their respective governments. By fighting to create fair elections that emphasize the importance of the people and not just the ruling elitist class, protesters in the MENA region symbolize the importance of human rights values such as equality in a government through democratic and fair elections.
When some ask me where I’m from, and “here” does not suffice, I do not say that I am Arab; I say that I am from Jerusalem. “Arab” is sometimes a bad word or foreign enemy that comes between me and this person, whereas “Jerusalem” is something they can relate to or has not been claimed by the same narrative. They both mean the same to me, but “Arab” carries an antagonistic or uneasy connotation into new relationships- where I want others to be open to understand me as an individual first and then have that built into their perspective or definition of an Arab. Societies provide advantages to certain identities and disadvantages to others prompting me to pick and choose in my immediate surroundings and context.
Identity can be wielded as a powerful and dangerous tool. It can be used as a guide when you are lost by giving you something to grab on with a purpose or goal to strive for and increase your self-esteem, confidence, and certainty while reducing stress or anxiety. When an identity is represented in our immediate context, people use it to understand, relate and form alliances or organize (politically) to defend their interests as a group. Further, I may assume one identity in its defense declaring my right to speak about it and for it, even if I am not especially informed on the way it has formed in the international world.
Being an Arab-American in times where Arabs and Americans are so polarized here, I realize I do not fully identify with or understand either side. However, even though I’m trying to develop my own platform, as a link, I am expected to speak on behalf of the “other.” In this position, I feel like a mediator or spokesperson, responsible for debunking an Aggressive Arab nature or a hateful and ethnocentric American nature, while facing hostility, collective suspicion, and surveillance. Sometimes I am claimed and others I am rejected by each of these groups.
Every day I face realities that disconnect me from each group. An intimate one is my relationship with my white family. Before I blocked them, I would log into Facebook to find explicitly anti-Muslim or extreme Zionist articles that family members posted on my timeline. Still, my family is so loving in person, not wanting to face actual truths that weaken their own identity. They claim me as family, but then connect me to this identity that is so ignorantly represented and antagonized- the same way I imagine sectarian conflict separating MENA identities such as the Shia and Sunni Ummah.
Recently, in my class which is focusing on terrorism, someone told a story of how she became friends with her Muslim employer and that “no, they’re not all terrorists,” but just like the rest of us. Through the entire story, she looked and gestured at me, seemingly sharing consolation or seeking approval. Even though I did appreciate her good intentions, in the moment I was separated from the rest of my classmates, marked as other, and given the permission to approve her response to so many. Oddly, we demand recognition for ostracized groups in the same ways it’s been denied. Through identity politics, we demand respect for oneself as other or different.
Eventually, I realize as much as this position is a burden, it is also a great privilege. In the MENA region, most identify as “Arab” or “Muslim.” They faced similar histories and events and believe in a common text, so no one’s claim is as unique, distinct, or loud as mine is in an American backdrop. As an Arab or Muslim overseas, voices are muffled in with the rest of the people sharing your identity. Here, as many people there are that hate or fear me because of my foreign identity, others want to hear from me. I get to add to their definition of what these identities entail like what it means to be a Muslim, imposing my own narrative on the group.
I am also privileged to live in a country where its democratic policy- whether it has been fully realized or not- holds citizens from different backgrounds to bring their perspectives and issues to build from; not a country where an authoritarian figure or identity imposes their own opinion of what policy should be. Depending on the context, sometimes an identity victimizes me and sometimes it empowers me.
Growing up, my identity was not represented on SAT, ACT, or many other censuses. I usually had to check the “white” box even though I have learned to be proud of different aspects, tribulations, or stories of my heritage. I want to represent my ethnicity in the American success story.
The argument for the inclusion of more races or the option to select multiple races represents what power minorities have to demand better recognition from the government. MENA region forms a greater narrative about the act of reporting identity. Groups were put under the rule of another identity and their own was denied which led to cultural suppression and persecution. Eventually, these groups that have been historically ignored or harmed demand the right to be protected.
Taking on a group identity gives us a sense of belonging and affirmation from other members. We may feel that we are part of something bigger, not insignificant, alone, or unheard. Committing or dedicating yourself to other members’ rights and responsibilities they expect from you grants purpose or direction. Your problems are group problems and your voice is supported and amplified to fight the threat together. You can split responsibilities or blame and there is more guidance and reinforcement to relieve you. However, to switch from an individual focus to a group focus, you may have to take on and accept values or beliefs you do not particularly agree with, adopting self-stereotypes or assimilating to the dominant, and sometimes blinded, discourse.
People of the MENA region faced a long history of sectarian violence that disabled unity which could effectively challenge or transform governments. Instead, it broke them apart, silencing their voice and in some cases making them dependent on foreign voices or aid. When the united Ottoman Empire was dissolved, colonizers split the area and its people while autonomous religious and cultural groups were also divided to reduce their power or say, in governance. Pause to imagine if it was possible to make America and an Arab middle-eastern state one state. Justified by the need for organization or governance of these diverse and divided citizens, ruling powers, even foreign, muted civil activity and imposed their way of life or opinions of policy on others. So divided, lacking an integrative identity, leaders and powerful figures or politicians may grab or monopolize resources and rights for their smaller groups crating a zero-sum competition. Sectarian polity in these areas was inflamed and harsher scrutiny or repression excluded many even in the case of a revolution. Personal and factional needs overwhelmed the sense of a common identity and instead of standing together, people joined opposing organizations to represent them. When an identity splinters, others need to be reinforced. Because, on your own, you are more easily erased.
Identity politics can urge mobilization around one identity or one aspect of your makeup, and you are pressured to take that as your defining feature even though you cannot be represented so reductively. To become a more impenetrable united force, the individual is integrated by assimilating dominant norms. Sometimes your identity’s label separates you more than your issue position. We may have the same values as someone but will never know because we are unwilling to socialize with outsiders and challenge this group or ideology that we have devoted ourselves to. When identities meet politics that have greater or long-term consequences, these divisions weaken our ability to form policies based on expected outcomes or truth-seeking. It’s more triggered by the “us” vs “them” battle.
Politics exploit these feelings to rally funding, resources, or a larger audience to win different supports. Then others grab onto these resource-rich identities. For example, anyone under the claim of a religious organization may win the support of foreign clergies who supply them with food or protections. Then, the leaders of these organizations win the support of desperate or oppressed populations.
In MENA, a religious identity also provides guidance for apolitical peoples searching for an ideology within which to frame their suffering or experience. It promotes faith and offers solace for ones suffering or oppressed with a promise of a bigger purpose. Religious groups mourn a supposedly more ethical past and presume religious instructions to return to this society. People’s fears, resentments, faith, and suffering can be exploited by power under religious identities. This becomes even more dangerous if people cling to these collective truths so desperately.
We are faced with very complex decisions and circumstances. It would be too hard to weigh all the options and make decisions without these prior ideas or instructions on what we should do. However, you can get too tied up in your responsibilities or devotion to these identities. While identities can connect us and give our insecurities a stronger voice or support, they can also polarize groups or exploited by power-hungry mobilizers. These labels may effectively imprison you or constrain what you in what you allow yourself to explore or believe. Something intended for inclusion may trap you in estranging conflict.
Fatima Abo Alasrar, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and former senior analyst at the Arabia Foundation, joined us on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 to shed some light on the crisis in Yemen and advocate a new social contract regarding Yemen as the war has evolved from a local insurrection into an international effort that has exposed greater vulnerabilities of the country, weakened the central government, and emboldened foreign threats to Yemen.
Before the country appointed a president, the Zaydis, an Islamic sect, were dominant in Yemen where they resided for thousands of years. Its Imams controlled the north of Yemen, as the theocratic Yemen Arab Republic, as the south slowly turned into the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. When the president in the north, Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime proposed to unite the north and south under one government, unification was not based on democratic principles, but on state, rhetoric-accentuated polarization and identity politics. For northerners, the war ended succession, but the southerners grieved as they became second-class citizens who were exploited under occupation. Meanwhile, the Houthi Movement organized Zaydi-Shia fighters against underdevelopment and political marginalization as they protested the dilution of Zaydi influence and identity. Inequality built resentment among civilians and some of the dissatisfied joined extremist groups or protest as people lost faith in the state. As more states and non-state actors got involved and introduced differing political and ideological orientations and promoted their interests, efforts deepened sectarian divides.
Saudi Arabia continued to assist the government against the Houthi rebels, especially motivated by their Shiite rival, Iran who supported the Houthi insurgency; however, Ms. AlAsrar revealed Saudi shortcomings in the military’s lack of warfare experience, increase in spending, and media coverage criticizing domestic failures. She explained that Saudi Arabia has only aggravated this already dire humanitarian crisis and now faces ramifications. She urged, instead of encouraging Saudi intervention, international attention should shift focus.
AlAsrar stressed Iranian intervention and influence in Houthi insurgency -evident as the group’s propaganda and style mirrors the others’- where Houthis considered themselves proud members of the Iran-led Axis of Resistance alliance (resisting the West and Israel). The Houthis act as Iran’s proxy to advance their goals in Yemen just as the Iranians act as Houthis’ proxy to get power in their own political agenda and this relationship has only festered.
The US is complicit in war crimes as it supports Saudi Arabia, a major ally, who is threatened by Western antagonizers including Iran and Houthi rebels in the counter-terrorism narrative. This alliance has clouded Americans’ knowledge of Yemeni objectives and continues to kill, repress, and threaten civilians. Now all players may use the counter-terrorism narrative to attract the international community, which is not as informed and interested in the domestic conflict consuming Yemen.
Radicalized and terrorist groups concentrate and compete for the spotlight and the conflict has amplified as it is linked to the war on terror for international attention. Al-Qaeda is such a group who has acted as a gang for hire in the Yemen conflict. The intervention of regional powers also threatens to draw Yemen further into the broader Sunni-Shia divide. Iran exploited the conflict to increase its influence in the region becoming the most beneficiary actor for its relatively low cost. Whereas, U.S. backed Saudi Arabia suffers reputational damage which is creating more friction.
All sides of the conflict have been accused of violations of international humanitarian law and organization which are pushing Yemeni civilians out. AlAsrar questions whether the UN can hold the Houthis accountable for their end of the bargain. The UN’s plan for Yemen has been shaped in Houthi favor, “confident in their power of destruction,” accepting Houthi demands and encouraging their extraction of concessions so the deal does not collapse. The desire to keep the Houthi involved in the peace process has only legitimized a violent non-state actor.
The speaker’s concern was in the international community’s engagement regarding the conflict in Yemen, misguided, misinformed, and disconnected narrative on which international actors base their policies. Political engagement continues to be overshadowed by limited propaganda and media coverage of the war.
AlAsrar elaborated with frustration concerning the overwhelming use of the humanitarian narrative to explain the conflict in Yemen. A lot of humanitarian work is fast-paced and reaches for an emotional narrative. There is a lack of comprehensive policy instruments when the audience sees humanitarian assistance as the primary tool. International humanitarian organization has hijacked the voices of the local civil society to provide immediate relief which cannot speak for the broader political factors that have created and perpetuated the crisis.
Other regional governments have interceded to pursue and protect their own interests, but the root of the Yemeni conflict was a domestic one. These foreign powers may encourage their partners to engage in a political process for peace but have instead overshadowed the conflict in Yemen which was driven by concerns in sectarian marginalization, economic underdevelopment, and displeasure at governmental political distraction in cooperation with foreign powers, the United States and Saudi Arabia. In response, AlAsrar’s narrative encourages broader education and analysis on the different motivations, perspectives, and grievances of each actor to establish a more comprehensive and consistent strategy and policy to deal with the exasperated and dire Yemen Conflict.
The rise of modern extremist groups has drawn new attention to child soldiers, triggering compassion and outrage. Besides the tactical advantage – where children are more capable of getting close to their targets – children are weaponized and featured in propaganda, even as suicide bombers or executioners, to attract media for the political advantage and attention, while others hang onto the group, maybe seeking refuge, while working as auxiliaries (cooks, messengers, porters, brides, stationed guards, etc.) in desperation. So malleable and vulnerable growing up in worlds hostile to childhood, child soldiers are collateral damage of warfare, used as tools, sacrifices, or targets.
In the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, many sides of ongoing conflicts have been documented or accused of using child soldiers for these reasons. However, the Islamic State – as ISIS or ISIL – is of the most notorious for its exceptional number of children enlisted for military engagement and for the distinct role its “Cubs” play in the international narrative. ISIS has bred “Cubs of the Caliphate” as a unique form of resilience by combining intense physical training with ideological and psychological indoctrination to advance the organization’s current and transgenerational aims- meaning that enlisting children allows the Islamic State to outlast territorial defeat and ensure its survival through these new generations. Since these children are seen as the future of IS, education and propaganda are essential to indoctrination.
The recruitment process of child soldiers involves the selection of a recruit, gaining different accesses, developing emotional trust, and ideological development. In efforts to gain powerful or intimate access to a child and avoid detection or resistance, recruiters may charm or manipulate them into physical and psychological isolation especially away from their parents or community exploiting familial and psychological vulnerability (neglectful or abusive conditions, suppression as members of minorities or other discriminated groups, orphaned children, poverty, etc.) while offering aid, resources, or promises of hope or retribution they have been deprived of. In ISIS-held territories, recruiters can act with impunity, with public access through different media channels or local gatherings. Children may join voluntarily, following their peers, dedicated to revenge, and for income, resources, security, or basic needs these organizations provide to orphans or children living in poverty or war-like conditions. Some children may have encouraged or pressured by their parents and family members who support or trust in the organization’s mission, for the religious promise of martyrdom, or in search of other securities. While other children are sold to militias. For example, in 2009 outside of MENA, the leader of the Tehri-e-Taliban Pakistan was reported to be buying children from 7 to 16 to serve as suicide bombers for prices between 7,000 and 14,000 USD in a nation where the per capita income was 2,600 USD per year. Further, in some of the region, Taliban leaders would demand money from families in return for protection and if they could not pay this amount, the group demanded a child recruit for the movement.
Children growing up in ISIS or similarly occupied territories in a crisis-struck region may be exposed, accustomed, or desensitized to images of violence and torture. They may have grown up in areas subject to various forms of violence, which have resulted in loss or trauma, that become observed facts of life. Many grow through an atmosphere saturated with antagonistic rhetoric where complex and dynamic conflicts are simplified into “Us or Them.” The environment may promote a justice system that deems violence acceptable and necessary in enforcing social rules and norms or resolving conflict. Additionally, the youth bulge in the MENA region has created economic and educational challenges that may promote the extremist narrative. Many developed in a world hostile to childhood with conditions that persecute innocence and youth. Hanging on to these organizations provides a sense of purpose, responsibility, or camaraderie for these children. Family and community who typically teach and convince children to value and respect human life (including their own), social responsibility, and ethics of society are replaced by more radical political organizations. Once enlisted, training is designed to ensure compliance by degrading or breaking down the individuality of soldiers to assemble them into a group (identity) that does not question orders. Forcing children to commit atrocities against their own family or communities not only causes the psychological break essential to attach them to this new entity, but it also stigmatizes the child, cutting off any exit from the militia.
“We were the ‘cleaners’ group. Cleaning means slitting the throats of those who belong to the other side and are hiding,” says a Syrian child who joined ISIL when he was 14, “A guy from my area was decapitated by [ISIL] because of me. People had their hands chopped off because of me.”
The Human Rights Watch reports that the rise of violent extremist groups in the MENA region marks an increase in the detention and prosecution of children as countries have adopted more aggressive counterterrorism measures. In this tense and antagonistic climate, with a whisper of “ISIS,” a child may be arrested if there is any suspicion or fingers pointing to their connection with these organizations or their members (who may have once been locals, friends, neighbors, or family). Children who have been arrested have described abuses and forms of torture interrogators use to elicit a confession.
“My confession says that I joined ISIS for sixteen days, but actually, I didn’t join at all. I said sixteen days to stop the torture.”
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict to the General Assembly urged Member States to treat children accused of actual or alleged association with parties to conflict primarily as victims and reiterated that detention should only be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time.
No doubt, many have committed atrocities that can be prosecuted under international law. However, punitive justice will only mimic the trauma, oppression, or distrust that the restorative process will have to undo. Dealing with a high prevalence of PTSD, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and physical ailments, children are pushed further into social isolation as they retain and relive the worst moments of their experience. So isolated through exposure to different levels of violence, they should not be further ostracized. They should be able to realize that they are victims of conflict. Psychological work must break the cycle of persecution and re-instill bits of humanity while nurturing future visions that have been stripped from these individuals. Some zones make children hyper-aware or fearing that their life was perpetually in danger. Sensitive programs and social workers will have to foster a sense of security or protection that the allegiance to a powerful organization or weapons once provided. Child-specific programs will have to consider the range of adversities confronted or of emotional distress experienced, along with local and cultural ways of coping with tragedy.
Because of their unique psychological and moral development, rehabilitation and reintegration must foster the health, respect, and dignity of these children. It must understand the different sense of morality developed; the difficulties of the child who has broken links with their family, community, or self; and the active involvement and recognition of the interests of the victim (child and community) in the resolution. They will realize that those who did not join or support ISIS (or other enemies) were also affected by conflict and need (and will expect) equal access to certain resources- like access to education and healthcare, but especially the running water and meals- that reintegration centers or programs might provide. This unequal access to resources may further marginalize these child soldiers. A greater focus should be made on efforts to trace liability up the chain of command and prosecute those who enlist children, so superiors are less incentivized to use them for the worst violations and war crimes.
Reintegrating former child soldiers into society is a long-term process, which requires commitment at the local and international levels. This demographic, these children, will grow as the future of the region and international body. Therefore, it is an international challenge to realize and coordinate supports and resources available, while encouraging measures to control sub-regional and cross-border activities harmful to children like deployment and protection of child-protection officers and advisers entering into conflict to reach the most vulnerable and restricting aid or support to organizations or government-backed militias who recruit and use child soldiers to engage in combat. Further, the international narrative on child soldiers must demand collective responsibility for the child’s fate along with the community’s awareness and sensitization of the experience the child lived as a member of these militias. If former child soldiers do not have access to rehabilitation programs to help them locate their families, receive education and different training to be fostered or introduced into civilian life, or realize any way to support themselves, they are at risk of re-recruitment. Threatening a new generation of terror, the protection of children in armed conflict should be regarded as an important aspect of any comprehensive strategy to resolve conflict. Asserted by the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict: We cannot afford to lose children, the future of nations, once they are released.
On 15 August 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a travel ban on two US Congresswomen, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar.His decision was a surprising reversal from a mere month ago, when both PM Netanyahu and Israeli’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, confirmed that Reps. Tlaib and Omar would be allowed into Israel “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”While the final catalyst for this reversal is credited to the machinations of US President Donald Trump, the primary cause for the travel ban, according to PM Netanyahu, is Reps. Tlaib’s and Omar’s support for the transnational Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, a concerted effort to compel the State of Israel to revolutionize how it works with Palestinians within and around Israel’s borders.This post aims to unpack the historical and cultural context of the BDS Movement, analyze the fault lines within the BDS Movement, and suggest ways for BDS to mend these divides while sharpening its effectiveness in advocating for the human rights of Palestinians.
Originating the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) Movement
From 31 August to 7 September 2001, the United Nations held the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR, also called the Durban Conference, as it was held in Durban, South Africa), billed as “providing an opportunity for the world to engage, for the first time in the post-apartheid era, in a broad agenda to combat racism and related issues.”Within this anti-racist, anti-apartheid ethos, world leaders sought to locate and eradicate large-scale structures bolstering racist ideology and marginalizing populations based off racial and ethnic identity.Almost all states at the WCAR were in total agreement that Zionism, the political movement to establish and protect a wholly-Jewish nation, was indeed racist.Many actors arguing against the ideology of Zionism claimed that, although the Jewish people have the right to create their own state, ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people (Palestinians) rendered the current form of Zionism a racist ideology.It was at the Durban Conference that BDS finds its intellectual roots, as many Middle East / North African states (specifically, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Republic, and Yemen) agreed to utterly isolate Israel (economically, intellectually, culturally, politically) until Israel revolutionized its relationship with indigenous Palestinians.Of course, calls for isolationism, itself a remnant of how the world treated South African during its apartheid practices, were eclipsed by the 9/11 attacks against the US a mere four days after the Durban Conference ended. It was also at the Durban Conference that the “Red-Green” alliance was formed between radical leftist and Islamist groups, collectively impugning Israel’s treatment of indigenous Palestinians.
The intellectual seeds of BDS were planted, and two years later, the world would see the harvest.On 8 December 2003, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion regarding the Israeli-built wall surrounding East Jerusalem, seeking to ascertain if the wall constituted a breach of international law (specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949).The ICJ (relying on oral and written testimony from over 50 UN Member States, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the European Union – amongst others) declared the wall bisecting Jerusalem and the continuation of Israeli settlements (displacing indigenous Palestinians) indeed violated international humanitarian law.The ICJ concluded their opinion, stating Israel should (a) cease construction on the wall and dismantle structures within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, (b) respect the right of the Palestinian people’s right to Self Determination (read this article for more information), and (c) pay reparations for costs incurred to the Palestinian people; furthermore, the ICJ contended that all State Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention should ensure Israel complies with this advisory opinion.While the advisory opinion alone was relatively toothless on the international stage (as, again, the US and Israel refused to comply with these stipulations), the ICJ’s decision kickstarted the eventual BDS movement two years later.
On 9 July 2005, over 150 Palestinian Civil Society Organizations (representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Arab citizens of Israel) signed an open letter to global civil society actors declaring their intent to boycott Israeli products, divesting business activities from working with Israel, and sanctioning groups continuing to aid the Israeli State.The letter argues, in light of Israel’s refusal to adhere to the ICJ’s recommendation, settlements extending into East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (see this article for a map of Palestine land loss since 1946) triggered the need for a transnational, nonviolent movement aimed at compelling the State of Israel to abide by the ICJ’s recommendation.The letter, echoing the anti-apartheid boycott movement of the 1960s – 1990s, contends that all persons of conscience (including Israeli citizens and members of the Jewish faith worldwide) have a moral obligation to pressure those in power (e.g., business leaders, political decision-makers, and other persons of high influence) to forcefully condemn Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinian populations.The three fundamental demands of the BDS movement of the State of Israel are as follows:
Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
Per the BDS official website, the Movement boasts several consequences of its ongoing efforts, including:
A 46% drop in foreign direct investment in Israel in 2014
Israeli weapon manfacturers complaining of an export crisis due to “less desire for Israeli=made products”.
Refusals from major artists (such as Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Faithless, Lauryn Hill, Brian, Eno, and Elvis Costello).
A formal recognition from the State of Israel that the BDS Movement presents a strategic threat to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Since its publication, the BDS movement has largely gained the most traction on college campuses (long understood to be a bastion of political activism).Simultaneously, the BDS Movement has been associated with radical anti-Zionism, bordering on anti-Semitism.This association has been the fodder of many political and civil society leaders and has crippled the efficacy of Palestinian Rights activists.
Critiques of BDS
Critiques of the BDS Movement fall into three broad categories: (1) issues surrounding its founder and leader, Omar Barghouti; (2) BDS’s opposition to the internationally-accepted Two-State Solution; and (3) accusations of antisemitic rhetoric and subsequent promotion of violence.
The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty… If ever the ethos of “a responsibility to protect”, recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of “humanitarian intervention” is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain and suffering.(p. 36)
Beyond the problematization of BDS’s Founder, other cultural and political forces call into question the endgame of the BDS Movement.Former US Ambassador to Israel (2011 – 2017), Daniel B. Shapiro, recently argued in The Atlantic the BDS Movement “advocates the end of Israel, rather than the establishment of two states, and assigns as responsibility for the conflict, in all its historical complexity, to Israel alone”.Other critics, such as the Anti-Defamation League (an international Jewish NGO) has formally classified the BDS Movement as antisemitic.Australian politicians have noted pro-BDS protests feature acts of violence; British academics voted against Israeli boycotts, noting these boycotts constrict peaceful dialogue between Israeli intellectual leaders and the rest of the world; and American politicians note that BDS can empower antisemitism and undermine the lives and livelihoods of young Israeli scientists. Furthermore, symbolic of many global academics’ ambivalence towards the BDS Movement, philosopher Judith Butler suggests a third path: collaborating with intellectual and cultural Israelis without accepting funding from the Israeli State. This move, Butler suggests, sidesteps the thorny issue of discrimination on the basis of nationality (e.g., refusing to work with Israeli academics simply wholly due to their Israeli citizenship) while still eschewing affiliation with the Israeli government.
Considering the complexity of the BDS Movement, with its goal of unshackling indigenous Palestinians and its questionable methods and leadership, I now pose the question: what lessons can transformational solidarity movements teach BDS, allowing it to deftly address its many criticisms and simultaneously bolster its efficacy to advocate for the human rights of Palestinians?
Embracing Complexity within Transformational Solidarity Movements
Dr. Anne Garland Mahler, in her text From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity, alludes to an ideal form of solidarity movements; this form is defined by qualities such as transnationalism (e.g., a widening of solidarity membership to include sympathizers of many, seemingly incongruous nationalisms – such as Palestinian and Israeli), transracial (e.g., not only including diversity ethnicities, such as Jewish and Arab, but an antiracist alignment of said ethnicities), anti-neoliberal (e.g., rejecting the ‘built-in’ nature of inequalities along dimensions related to socioeconomic status, level of education, political access, and health), and horizontalist (e.g., eschewing rigid hierarchies of authority within an organization).While her original analysis centers around the Tricontinental Solidarity Movement, a Cuban-borne political movement attempting to interlock methods and goals of liberation found within Asian, African, and Latin American peoples, leaders of the BDS Movement would do well to heed her call.
The BDS Movement, at base, aims to transform the lives of Palestinians – the endgame is to reduce violence, promote negative and positive peace, and provide the conditions within life that allow an individual and a people the resources and structures required to build harmony, enjoy prosperity, promote health, and protect equity.Transformational movements fixate not only on the immediate tragedies of war and conflict, but they additionally fixate on the long-term situations giving rise to sustainable peace.Mahler correctly locates a critical juncture within this equation – transformational movements must ally themselves with other, perhaps seemingly disparate, movements also aspiring for liberation.This relational space of ally-ship is precisely where the BDS Movement should aim to stride.These allies (and partners in transformational struggles) may include prominent Arab-Jewish transracial and Israeli-Palestinian transnational organizations.These potential allies also include Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam (facilitating intentional encounters between Israeli and Palestinian groups), the Children of Abraham (emphasizing the spiritual and religious dimensions required of Israeli-Palestinian peace processes), the Alliance of Middle East Peace (a political lobbying coalition proposing legislation promoting peace in the MENA region), and Peace Oil (an for-profit company promoting economic interdependency between Arabs and Israelis).Alliances between BDS and these organizations may increase accountability for ‘bad actors’ within the BDS Movement, demonstrate cooperation between Arab and Israelis (rather than domination or antagonism), and sidestep the maligned efforts of ‘spoilers’ within peacebuilding processes.
From a peace and human rights perspective, the BDS Movement should aspire to be one of solidarity – meaning its membership, supporters, and leaders coalesce their methods of transformation within three domains: (1) electoral democracy, (2) opposition, and (3) dialogue.Specifically, global sympathizers of the BDS Movement should consider continuously voting for candidates and measures ultimately empowering peacebuilding between Israel and Palestine, utilizing nonviolent methods of protesting anti-peace individuals and organizations (boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are obvious examples here – what is missing is a clear focus on the definitive spoilers of peace) and finally, engaging in good-faith, long-term dialogue within their own ranks and between the BDS Movement and other allies and potential adversaries.
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