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Ed Webb

Our Oligarch - 0 views

  • Abramovich is perhaps the most visible of the “oligarchs” surrounding Putin, who are widely perceived as extensions of the Russian president and keepers of a vast fortune that is effectively under the Kremlin’s control. Much of this wealth was extracted from Russia’s enormous energy and mineral resources, and is now stashed in secret bank accounts in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, in empty mansions and condos from London to Manhattan to Miami, and in yachts and private jets on the French Riviera.
  • as much as 60% of Russia’s GDP is offshore
  • Abramovich—who, like many of the most prominent Russian oligarchs, is Jewish—has for years been a prolific donor to Jewish philanthropies. He has given half a billion dollars to Jewish charities over the past two decades, sending money linked to Putin’s kleptocratic regime circulating through Jewish institutions worldwide
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  • The reserved, gray-bearded Abramovich is notoriously litigious toward critics who seek to detail his close ties to Putin. Last year, he successfully sued the British journalist Catherine Belton, who claimed in her 2020 book Putin’s People that the Russian president dictated Abramovich’s major purchases, including his decision to buy Chelsea. He also extracted an apology from a British newspaper for calling him a “bag carrier” for the Russian president.
  • Among other things, he has profoundly influenced Jewish life on three continents, developing deep financial ties with major communal institutions. He is partly responsible for the preeminent role played by Chabad in the religious life of post-Soviet Russia, for the growth of major Jewish museums from Russia to Israel, for a raft of anti-antisemitism programming involving leading American and British Jewish organizations, and for the expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem
  • the Jewish world is forced to reckon with its long embrace of Abramovich, and with the moral costs of accepting his money
  • Certain Soviet Jews of Abramovich’s generation found themselves at the forefront of an emerging market economy. Concentrated in white collar professions but systematically excluded from desirable posts and from the top ranks of the Communist Party, they were unusually prepared—and, perhaps, motivated—to find legal and semi-legal points of entry into the tightly-regulated commerce between the Soviet Union and the West. This helps explain why, as the historian Yuri Slezkine writes in The Jewish Century, six of the seven top oligarchs of 1990s Russia (Petr Aven, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Fridman, Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Alexander Smolensky) were ethnic Jews.
  • Boris Yeltsin soon initiated the firesale privatization of state-controlled industries at the urging of Washington and the IMF—a reckless transition from a command economy to a capitalist one that drove millions of Russians into poverty
  • the Yeltsin administration implemented its infamous loans-for-shares program, selling off key state industries in rigged auctions to Russia’s new business elite for a fraction of their real value in order to stabilize the state’s finances in the short term. Berezovsky and Abramovich gained ownership stakes in Sibneft, one of the world’s largest energy companies, and became instant billionaires.
  • In 1996, the handful of leading oligarchs pooled their financial resources—and directed their media companies’ coverage—to reelect the deeply unpopular Yeltsin over his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, whose platform of re-nationalizing industries terrified both the Russian and Western business classes
  • Fearing that it was unsustainable for a small group of mostly Jewish billionaires to prop up an ailing, visibly alcoholic president—especially after the ruble collapsed in 1998, dragging down a generation’s living standards and initiating a hunt for scapegoats—Berezovsky spearheaded an effort the following year to replace Yeltsin with a young, healthy, disciplined, and then-obscure former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. It was a decision he would come to regret.
  • wealth so easily acquired could just as easily be taken away. In 2001, Putin hounded Berezovsky and Gusinsky—whose TV networks had criticized the president’s mishandling of a naval disaster—with criminal indictments for tax fraud, forcing them to sell their media and energy holdings at a fraction of their true cost. As a result, Abramovich, who had never challenged Putin, acquired control of Sibneft, while Berezovsky fled to the United Kingdom and Gusinsky departed for Spain and then Israel. Abramovich again came out ahead in 2003, when the oligarch Khodorkovsky was sent to a Siberian prison on tax charges after criticizing Putin for corruption, leaving his assets in the energy sector to be redistributed among those on good terms with the president.
  • “I don’t think there is a percent of independence in Abramovich,” said Roman Borisovich, a Luxembourg-based Russian banker turned anti-corruption activist who once encountered Abramovich through Berezovsky in the 1990s. “For Abramovich to stay alive, he had to turn against his master [Berezovsky], which is what he did, and he has served Putin handsomely ever since.”
  • Whereas in the Yeltsin era, the term identified a system dominated by truly independent tycoons, “Putin’s top priority when he came to power was to break that system, replacing it with a system of concentrated power in which men who are inaccurately referred to as oligarchs now have only as much access to wealth as Putin allows them to have,”
  • Even as he built up his credibility with Putin, he joined many of his fellow oligarchs in stashing his billions in Western financial institutions, which proved eager to assist. “Elites in the post-Soviet space are constantly looking to move their assets and wealth into rule-of-law jurisdictions, which generally means Western countries like the US or UK,”
  • In 2008, Berezovsky sued his former protege over his confiscated Sibneft shares; then, in 2012, seven months after a judge rejected all of his claims, Berezovsky died in his London home in an apparent suicide. Some former associates believe he might have been murdered
  • In 2017, BuzzFeed reported that US spy agencies suspect Russian involvement in as many as 14 mysterious deaths in Britain over the previous decade, including Berezovsky’s. In the wake of the 2018 poisoning of the defected double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, British intelligence services became increasingly wary of wealthy expats with close ties to the Kremlin. Diplomatic strain stymied Abramovich’s effort to acquire a Tier 1 British visa, which would have enabled him to stay in the country for 40 months.
  • “No one forced the British or American real estate industries to toss their doors open to as much illicit wealth as they could find, or the state of Delaware to craft the world’s greatest anonymous shell company services,” said Michel. “Western policymakers crafted all of the policies that these oligarchs are now taking advantage of.”
  • Abramovich also safeguarded a significant part of his fortune in the US, especially during his third marriage to the Russian American socialite and fashion designer Dasha Zhukova. Even after their 2018 divorce, Abramovich began the process of converting three adjacent townhouses on Manhattan’s Upper East Side into what will eventually become the largest home in the city, an “urban castle” valued at $180 million—making him one of the many wealthy Russians sheltering assets in New York’s booming and conveniently opaque real estate sector. (The mansion is intended for Zhukova and their two young children; Abramovich also has five children from his second marriage based primarily in the UK.) He also owns at least two homes in Aspen, Colorado, a gathering place of the global elite.
  • the oligarchs are now credibly threatened with exile from the West. Countries like France and Germany have already begun confiscating yachts owned by select Russian officials. And although the UK is still struggling to come up with a legal basis for following suit, leading politicians like Labour Leader Keir Starmer are urging direct sanctions against Abramovich. “Abramovich’s reputation has finally collapsed, along with the other supposedly apolitical oligarchs,” Michel said four days after Russia invaded Ukraine. “There’s no recovery from this. This is a titanic shift in terms of how these oligarchs can operate.”
  • Israel has been more hesitant to hold him to account.
  • In 2018, Abramovich acquired Israeli citizenship through the law of return, immediately becoming the second-wealthiest Israeli, behind Miriam Adelson. As a new Israeli citizen, he joined several dozen Russian Jewish oligarchs who have sought citizenship or residency in the Jewish state—a group that includes Fridman, Gusinsky, and the late Berezovsky. Since 2015, Abramovich has owned and sometimes lived in the 19th-century Varsano hotel in Tel Aviv’s trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood, and in 2020 he purchased a mansion in Herzliya for $65 million—the most expensive real estate deal in the country’s history
  • As an Israeli passport holder, Abramovich is eligible to visit the UK for six months at a time and is exempt from paying taxes in Israel on his overseas income for the first decade of his residency
  • Given his increasingly precarious geopolitical position, Jewishness has become Abramovich’s identity of last resort—and Jewish philanthropic giving has provided him with an air of legitimacy not only in Israel but throughout the Jewish world. Abramovich and his fellow oligarchs “need to spend some money to launder their reputations,” said Borisovich, the anti-corruption activist. “They cannot be seen as Putin’s agents of influence; they need to be seen as independent businessmen. So if they can exploit Jewish philanthropy or give money to Oxford or the Tate Gallery, that’s the cost of doing business.”
  • A 2017 article in Politico, which identified Abramovich and Leviev as “Chabad’s biggest patrons worldwide,” also referred to Lazar as “Putin’s rabbi.” Lazar has often run interference for the Russian president—for instance, by defending his initial crackdown on oligarchs like Gusinsky as not motivated by antisemitism, or by praising Russia as safe for Jews under his governance. (The researcher noted that Putin has also cultivated prominent loyalists in other Russian religious communities, including the Orthodox Church and Islam.)
  • Abramovich also significantly funded the construction of the $50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, which opened in 2012 (and to which Putin pledged to donate a month of his presidential salary). In a 2016 article in The Forward, the scholar Olga Gershenson suggested that the museum’s narrative bordered on propaganda, framing Jews as “a model Russian minority” and “glorifying and mourning . . . without raising more controversial and relevant questions that would require the viewer to come to terms with a nation’s difficult past.”
  • “It concentrates on the Soviet victory over the Nazis, and then it ends by saying that Jews in Putin’s Russia are all good and content.”
  • “Say No to Antisemitism” has brought together Chelsea players and management with many top Jewish groups; the currents heads of the ADL, the WJC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Holocaust Educational Trust, among others, are all listed on its steering committee. The campaign is at least in part intended to address the antisemitism of some Chelsea fans, who have been known to shout “Yid!” and hiss in imitation of gas chambers when taunting fans of the rival club Tottenham, which has a historically Jewish fan base that proudly refers to itself as “the Yid Army.” Last November, Israeli President Isaac Herzog described the campaign as “a shining example of how sports can be a force for good and tolerance.”
  • Abramovich is also one of the primary benefactors of a Holocaust museum that opened in Porto last May. As of last year, Abramovich is a newly minted citizen of Portugal (and by extension, the European Union), which offers such recognition to anyone who can prove Sephardic ancestry dating back before the Portuguese expulsion of Jews in 1496.
  • Berel Rosenberg, a representative of the museum, denied that Abramovich had given the Porto Jewish community any money besides a €250 fee for Sephardic certification; regarding reports to the contrary, he alleged that “lies were published by antisemites and corrupt journalists.” However, Porto’s Jewish community does acknowledge that Abramovich has donated money to projects honoring the legacy of Portuguese Sephardic Jews in Hamburg, and he has been identified as an honorary member of Chabad Portugal and B’nai B’rith International Portugal due to his philanthropic activities in the country.
  • Abramovich has made a $30 million donation for a nanotechnology research center at Tel Aviv University; funded a football-focused “leadership training program” for Arab and Jewish children; and supported KKL-JNF’s tree-planting campaign in the southern Negev, which is dedicated to Lithuanian victims of the Holocaust—and which has drawn opposition from local Bedouin communities who view it as a land grab.
  • he has kept his support for Israeli settlements well-hidden
  • Abramovich has used front companies registered in the British Virgin Islands to donate more than $100 million to a right-wing Israeli organization called the Ir David Foundation, commonly known as Elad, which has worked since the 1980s to move Jewish settlers into occupied East Jerusalem. Elad also controls an archeological park and major tourist site called City of David, which it has leveraged in its efforts to “Judaize” the area, including by seizing Palestinian homes in the surrounding neighborhood of Silwan and digging under some to make them uninhabitable.
  • Even before he announced he would be setting up a charity to help victims in Ukraine, members of Abramovich’s family were quick to distance themselves from the war: A contemporary art museum in Moscow co-founded by Abramovich and Zhukova has announced that it will halt all new exhibitions in protest of the war. Abramovich’s 27-year-old daughter Sofia, who lives in London, posted a message on her popular Instagram account that read, “The biggest and most successful lie of the Kremlin’s propaganda is that most Russians stand with Putin.”
  • Just two days before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, it was reported that Abramovich is donating tens of millions of dollars to Yad Vashem, the global Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem
  • Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan joined the heads of multiple Israeli charitable organizations in urging the US not to sanction Abramovich. The letter was also signed by Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau and representatives of Sheba Medical Center, Tel Aviv University, and Elad
  • Oleg Deripaska and Mikhail Fridman, were already calling for peace negotiations just three days after the invasion. (Fridman and Deripaska are also major Jewish philanthropists, as are other Russian oligarchs including Petr Aven, Yuri Milner, and Viktor Vekselberg. All of them now face global scrutiny.)
  • “In order for settlers to take over Palestinian homes, they need a lot of money,” said Hagit Ofran, co-director of the Settlement Watch project at the Israeli organization Peace Now, “both to take advantage of poor Palestinians for the actual purchases, and then for the long and expensive legal struggle that follows, and that can bankrupt Palestinian families. The money is crucial.” Of Abramovich’s support for Elad, she added, “That’s a lot from one source; I assume that if you give such a big donation, you know what it is for.”
  • Abramovich and others have spent more than two decades loyally serving and profiting off Putin’s corrupt and violent regime—one that has been accused of murdering and jailing journalists and political dissidents and of committing war crimes from Chechnya to Syria. And for much of that time, Jewish institutions worldwide have been more than happy to take money from Abramovich and his peers
  • longstanding philanthropic ties may affect the Jewish communal world’s willingness to hold Russia accountable for its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty
  • “I think the view of much of Jewish philanthropic leadership, right and left, conservative and liberal, has been the bottom line: If the purposes for which the philanthropy is given are positive, humane, holy, and seen to strengthen both the Jewish community and the whole of society, then to sit and analyze whether the donor was exploitive or not, and whether this was kosher or not, would be hugely diverting, amazingly complicated, and divisive.”
  • Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, acknowledged the difficulty of making ethical calls about donors, but argued that the attempt is still necessary. “In philanthropy, nearly all money is tainted, either because it was acquired by exploiting workers, by harming the environment, by selling harmful products, or by taking advantage of systems that benefit the wealthy to the detriment of others. That said, we can’t throw up our hands and say that we can either take no money or all money; there have to be red lines,” she said.
  • Berman, the scholar of Jewish philanthropy, agrees. “It is tempting to say all money is fungible, so where it came from does not or cannot matter,” she said. “But no matter how much we might want to launder the money, wash it clean of its past and its connections to systems of power, the very act of doing so is an erasure, an act of historical revisionism. Even worse, it can actually participate in bolstering harmful systems of power, often by deterring institutions reliant on that money from holding a person or system to account.”
Ed Webb

A coup busted? | Mada Masr - 0 views

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    The journalist who wrote this has since been arrested and summoned to the Military Prosecutor on charges of spreading false news. In Egypt it is a crime to publish anything on the military without authorization.
Ed Webb

Trapped in Iran | 1843 - 0 views

  • Iran has a complicated, and at times paranoid, government. Elected parliamentarians give a veneer of democracy but power ultimately resides with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s most powerful security force, answers directly to him. Rival arms of the state, including the security forces, jostle for influence. And the rules are unclear.
  • I had gone to report on the impact of American-imposed sanctions. Some news stories were claiming that Tehran was on the brink of collapse, but I saw few signs of it. There was no panic buying. The city looked cleaner and more modern than on my visit three years before. It has the best underground in the Middle East, with locally made trains. Parks and museums were abundant and well-tended, pavements were scrubbed and the city’s many flower-beds immaculately maintained.
  • America’s sanctions had hurt people, of course. Average monthly salaries were worth less than a pair of imported shoes. I saw people sleeping rough or hawking junk on the streets. One former university lecturer I met had been reduced to busking. But few people went hungry and there seemed to be a joie de vivre among many of those I talked to. Cafés, theatres and music halls were packed. An earlier bout of sanctions had forced Tehran’s Symphony Orchestra to disband but I wangled a ticket for the opening night of the reconstituted Philharmonic.
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  • My captors wore no identifying uniforms, but on the second day the doctor told me that he was an officer in the intelligence arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran’s security agencies are many tentacled. In 1979 the new Islamic Republic retained much of the existing state apparatus, including the army and a good part of the bureaucracy, but it added another tier to keep existing institutions in check, and the parallel systems have competed ever since. The government’s own intelligence ministry would be unlikely to detain a Western journalist whose entry it had approved. My accusers were from its more powerful rival.
  • Over the course of four days the men spent most of their time glued to phone-screens, watching Bollywood films, or American or Chinese schlock full of street fights, which they accessed through virtual private networks to evade the censorship they were supposed to enforce.
  • Self-censorship ranks as one of an authoritarian regime’s strongest tools, and I was complicit.
  • Despite Iran’s pious reputation, Tehran may well be the least religious capital in the Middle East. Clerics dominate the news headlines and play the communal elders in soap operas, but I never saw them on the street, except on billboards. Unlike most Muslim countries, the call to prayer is almost inaudible. There has been a rampant campaign to build new mosques, yet more people flock to art galleries on Fridays than religious services. With the exception, perhaps, of Tel Aviv, I had visited nowhere in the Middle East where people read as voraciously as Tehran. “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fable of women enslaved to a theocratic caste, is a particular favourite, the owner of one bookstore told me.
  • Life in Iran has always swung both ways. Nothing goes and everything goes. Alcohol is banned but home delivery is faster for wine than for pizza.
  • The space for veil-free living had grown since I last visited. In the safety of their homes, women often removed their head coverings when chatting over the internet. Darkened cinema halls offered respite from the morality police who enforce discipline. In cafés women let their scarves fall languorously. The more brazen simply walked uncovered in the streets, risking imprisonment. And, in an unusual inversion of rebellion, ties have made a reappearance some 40 years after Ayatollah Khomeini denounced them as a symbol of British imperialism.
  • The listing of plays in Tehran was almost as long as London’s West End and I devoured them. Directors are adept at finding ways to evade the censors. A striking number of plays and films I saw were set in prisons – a commentary on the Iranian condition – but under bygone regimes. Opera was taboo, but a performance one evening in the red-cushioned opera house of the former shah, which was billed as Kurdish folk music, included Verdi. Beneath a vast glittering chandelier the audience threw bouquets of flowers at the Iranian singer, who is acclaimed in both Rome and Berlin; for an encore, she finally dared to sing a solo.
  • Of course not everyone got away with pushing at the strictures. In my first week in Tehran the authorities pulled a production of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” – the play is about suicide, which is forbidden in Islam – and another about poor women reduced to hawking to feed their families. Cafés that hosted live bands risked closure until they had paid off fines. Women without head-coverings who were spotted on one of Tehran’s many surveillance cameras received police summons by text. But the morality police, who drove around town in new green-and-white vans, seemed too stretched to suppress every challenge.
  • as well as being an intelligence officer, he was an academic and wrote a newspaper column
  • It was liberating to have the run of Tehran, without minders, deadlines or chores. But of course, I wasn’t truly free. I policed myself on behalf of the regime, becoming my own jailer and censor, aware that any lapse could have consequences. Sometimes I tried to speak over colleagues or relatives who were saying things that I feared might enrage my captors. I felt the presence of hundreds of electronic eyes. The friendliest faces who greeted me might be informers. And I could not leave Iran. It is an odd experience to know that you can be caught out at any time. But this was the way of Tehran. Some avenues open up, others close. Everyone feels like a captive. There are those who say that it is all a grand plan of the ayatollahs to keep people on edge.
  • I was caught in a political game involving high-seas tankers and international diplomacy that far exceeded my ability to influence it.
  • I feared either that the Revolutionary Guards thought they could use my presence to negotiate some kind of deal, or that I was becoming a pawn in the internal rivalry within the Iranian government. I was beginning to see at first hand the glaring tensions between the two arms of the state. My hotel seemed increasingly nervous about hosting an over-stayer without a passport. In an attempt to evict me one evening, they cut the lights and blamed an unfixable electrical fault. The following morning the Guards arrived to transfer me to another location. En route we were chased by two motorbikes and careened up and down the alleyways of northern Tehran. Only when we pulled into a cul-de-sac did the Guards succeed in shaking them off.
  • A new interrogator – toad-like and clad in leather – told me that the Guards had found incriminating material on my laptop that touched on matters of national security: he had found a note from a conversation I’d had with a government flunkie about smuggling rings connected to the offspring of senior Iranian officials. This proved, he said, that I had crossed the line from journalism to espionage. They were reopening the case.
  • Notes he had discovered on Iran’s spiralling brain drain confirmed, to his mind, that I was seeking to undermine national morale.
  • I wasn’t even sure how genuinely religious many of those I had met were. When we drove about town, Ali talked of his student days, his young family and his passion for British football. Ideology rarely came up. Within the parameters set by the vice squads, Tehran’s dominant culture was defiantly secular. Iran called itself a theocracy, yet religion felt frustratingly hard to locate and the truly religious seemed sidelined, like a minority.
  • For ten nights in Muharram these passion plays were performed with growing fervour. Even an irreverent man who taught me Farsi, who devoted much of his spare time to picking up waitresses in cafés, said Muharram was the one religious occasion he observed. The streets were lined with mokebs, stalls offering tea and dates and decorated with tragic representations of the battlefield using decapitated toy soldiers. At one mokeb, I came across a camel being readied for sacrifice. Many of these rites drew on ancient folklore rather than Muslim practice, akin to the celebration of Easter in the West. Since its inception the clerical regime had sought – and failed – to purify Iran of its non-Islamic elements.
  • “You feel a direct connection between people and God here,” a 40-year-old programme manager told me. He had stopped going to government mosques altogether, he said. Like some other pious Iranians I met, he feared that politics had sullied their religion rather than elevating it.
  • Panahian preached from a cushioned, teak throne beneath a vast chandelier while his acolytes crowded around him on the floor. He projected so much power, I got the feeling that if he’d read from a phone directory his disciples would still have sobbed. “Are you a servant of God or of man?” he said, scanning the crowd for suspects. “Choose between the tyranny of westernisation and God.” After he’d left a woman in a black chador took me aside. I steeled myself for an ideological harangue. Instead, she held up a plastic bag of bread and a plastic container of beans that the Husseiniya distributed after the sermon. “That’s why we came,” she said. “If you ask about the contents of the sermon, no one can tell you. If you ask about the contents of breakfast, they’ll all remember.”
  • the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the Muslim world. Since the ayatollahs toppled the shah, Iran’s Jewish population has shrunk from 80,000 to around a tenth of that number. The ayatollahs have largely kept the remaining Jews safe, but they have also confiscated some of their property, particularly that of those who have left the country. Tensions between Iran’s Jews and the regime ebb and rise depending on the country’s relationship with Israel. But over time the Islamic Republic seems to have grown more at ease with the community
  • Iran has 22 mikva’ot – pools for ritual immersion. Many of Tehran’s dozen active synagogues are vast and packed with worshippers
  • There was a Jewish café, two kosher restaurants and a maternity hospital funded by the Jewish community in the south of Tehran, where less than 5% of those born were Jewish. A Jewish sports centre was also under construction
  • By rare coincidence the first service of selichot, the penitential prayers recited for a month in the run up to the High Holidays, began on the first day of the solemn month of Muharram. The synagogues were packed. At 1am Iran’s largest synagogue still teemed with families. At 2am the congregation swayed in prayer for Israel and its people. The communal chest-beating was gentler than in the Husseiniya, but more ardent than in Western congregations. Women walked up to the ark and kissed the smooth Isfahani tiles painted with menorahs and stars of David, acting like Shia pilgrims at their shrines. People milled around on the street outside chatting. I must have recited my prayers for forgiveness with conviction.
  • two men in black entered and introduced themselves as officers from another branch of intelligence. They apologised profusely for the difficulties I had faced and blamed the Guards for the inconvenience. They hoped that I had been well treated and expressed outrage that the Guards had made me pay my own hotel bill. They assured me that they’d been working strenuously for weeks to fix matters. My ordeal was over, they said. But could they just ask a few questions first?After 40 minutes of interrogation, they disappeared. Ten minutes later they were back with embarrassed smiles. One awkward matter needed resolving. Because I had overstayed my visa, I needed to pay a fine of 4m toman, about  $200.“Of course, the Guards should be paying since the delay was of their making,” they said.I called Ali and asked him to clear the fine.“No way,” he replied. “Can’t they waive it?”The intelligence officers apologised again but remained insistent. There were regulations. They couldn’t foot the bill for a mistake of the Guards.
  • Only when the flight map on my seat-back screen showed the plane nosing out of Iranian airspace did I begin to breathe normally.
Ed Webb

Man Arrested in Mecca for Going on Pilgrimage 'For the Queen's Soul' - 0 views

  • umrah
  • The man, who was wearing a generic white pilgrimage costume, held a banner handwritten in both Arabic and English saying, “Umrah for the soul of Queen Elizabeth II, may Allah grant her a place in heaven and accept her among the righteous people.”
  • People generally take photos while on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, and sometimes that includes shoutouts and banners with different messages, but security has been tightened after an Israeli journalist snuck into the Hajj, the major Muslim pilgrimage, in July.
Ed Webb

A forgotten chapter in the history of Egypt and Jews | Egypt Independent - 0 views

  • It is a tale of history that is a decline. A fraying of social fabric, as mistrust enters into the interactions between neighbors. From a way of living where to be Jewish was inconsequential to social relations, to the way that being Jewish became an accusation.
  • The story of Jews in the Middle East does not fold smoothly into a Jewish narrative of oppression, and many Egyptian Jews can trace their families’ arrival in Egypt to an escape from persecution, whether from pogroms or the Spanish Inquisition. The history of the Jews in Europe has been told such that it becomes the history of all Jews, and it is a deeply politicized narrative, its folds influenced by Zionism, such that the history of the Jews without a homeland is simply one of persecution, and that Israel offers a solution to that perennial condition. The Jews of Egypt tell a different story. So different was this story that, even for those who did not oppose Israel for political reasons, it simply did not resonate or speak to them. As a French journalist, the daughter of an Egyptian Jew, says: “It did not occur to the family to go to Israel. That was a place for oppressed Jews, so it wasn’t for us.”
  • “Laila Mourad,” a man says near the start of the film, “she was great.” But on hearing that she was Jewish, he takes his praise back. There is only one comment of this sort in the film; it is not an exploration of contemporary Egyptian perceptions of Jews. Rather, this comment acts as a pointer to contemporary reality, and in a sense, because it is so near the start, the rest of the film is a kind of answer or a rejoinder to it.
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  • The stories become darker. There’s the story of the officer who arrives at night, giving an entire family a number of days within which to leave their country. And these are stories also of resilience — the man who says to the officer, “I am more Egyptian than you,” the one who challenges the officer at his door not to “challenge the patriotism standing before him,” or the one who answers the officer’s suggestion that he leave to Israel with, “No, why don’t you go to Israel.”
  • The film offers a tale characterized by warm memories, but also a tale of how friendships, work relationships and neighborly interminglings can become poisoned by the machinations of a regime and its propaganda machine. It is a tale of how it is easier to poison than it is to get the poison out.
Ed Webb

The Hamburg verdict: Myths, media and a Muslim monster | Middle East Eye - 0 views

  • Almost no media outlet will report on the verdict of the trial which led to a single - yes, a single - conviction. Where are the journalists, media outlets, researchers, writers, intellectuals and commentators who wrote hundreds of columns, who were interviewed on television and radio, who have shown no repentance for their racist arguments on the basis of inaccurate allegations, for stoking the fire of fear against Islam, for further bolstering the deep-rooted xenophobia and weakening the character Islam in Europe and the Western world?
  • Sadly, the scandal that surrounded the “Cologne trial” is a sign of the times, unfairly showing the ease with which people belittle Islam as a homogeneous culture developed in its own bubble, passed down from ancestral times and unmalleable.It is treated as a religion and culture that carries values and standards inherited from the time it was created and incompatible with French society, to simply use the example of a country I know the best.
  • we are witnessing the construction, by the media and politicians, of a threatening Islam, one which is entirely monolithic
Ed Webb

Parents protest as dream of bilingual education in Israel turns sour | Middle East Eye - 0 views

  • Hand in Hand operates four bilingual schools across Israel and two kindergartens. Jaffa’s primary school classes are the most recent addition.The idea of children from different cultural backgrounds learning together and speaking each other’s language may seem uncontroversial. But it has prompted a fierce backlash from right-wing Jewish groups in Israel.In late 2014 Hand in Hand’s flagship school in Jerusalem was torched by activists from Lehava, an organisation that opposes integration between Jewish and Palestinian citizens. Graffiti daubed on the walls read “Death to the Arabs” and “There can be no coexistence with cancer”.Three of the group’s members were jailed last year. In January Israel’s high court increased the sentences of two brothers involved in the arson attack.Although Lehava is a fringe group, it draws on ideas that have found favour with much larger numbers of Israeli Jews, especially over the past 15 years as the country has lurched to the right.A survey by the Pew polling organisation this month found that half of Israeli Jews wanted Arabs expelled from the state, and 79 percent believed Jews should have more rights than their Palestinian compatriots.
  • 1,350 children are currently in bilingual education, out of a total Israeli school population of some 1.5 million children.
  • The Jaffa parents argue that their coastal city of 50,000 residents, which is incorporated into the Tel Aviv municipal area, is the natural location for a bilingual school.A third of Jaffa’s residents are Palestinian, reflecting the fact that, before Israel’s creation in 1948, it was Palestine’s commercial centre.Although Israelis mostly live in separate communities, based on their ethnicity, Jaffa is one of half a dozen urban areas where Jewish and Palestinian citizens live close to each other.
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  • Within days of the bilingual first-grade classes opening last year, parents hit a crisis when school administrators refused to let the children take off the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha.When the parents rebelled and kept their children home, the management “flipped out”, said Ronel. “Now the trust has gone and we are demanding that they make commitments in writing that things will be different.”
  • Ronel, an Israeli Jewish journalist, said he had long been pessimistic about the region’s future and had contemplated leaving Israel with his family, taking advantage of his wife’s German passport. But that changed once his daughter, Ruth, began at the bilingual kindergarten.“I have become evangelical about it,” he said. “I see how her knowledge of Palestinian identity and the Arabic language has made her own identity much stronger.”He said knowing the other side was essential to strengthening Israelis’ sense of security and reducing their fears. “This is the model for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. I am sure this is what a solution will look like.”
  • bilingual schools are proving particularly popular in Israel’s mixed cities. Next year Hand in Hand will open the first bilingual elementary school in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, following the success of a bilingual kindergarten there
  • Far-right Jewish religious groups, ideologically close to the settlers, have set up seminaries and exclusive housing areas in Jaffa and other mixed cities. “They are going the other way: they want even deeper segregation,” said Dichter.Hassan Agbaria, principal of the only bilingual school in a Palestinian community in Israel, located in the northern town of Kafr Karia, said there were problems in more rural areas too. This month the gated Jewish community of Katzir, close to his school, refused to allow Hand in Hand organisers in for a parents’ registration meeting, accusing the group of “political activity”.“It is a big psychological hurdle for some of them,” he told MEE. “Some think you must be crazy to send your young children into an Arab community every day.”
Ed Webb

Islamists bring religion down to earth: the end of religious idealism | openDemocracy - 0 views

  • the first decisions of the government have shown the speed with which religious idealism has given way to practical realism. 
  • On February 4, Moucef Ben Salim, minister of higher education and member of Ennahda, accused an unnamed foreign country of “pumping large sums of money in to destabilize the country."
  • For Saudi companies or individuals to invest in Tunisia, the Saudi rulers must authorize those investments. For that to happen, the Tunisian leadership must realign itself with the political agenda of the Saudi rulers in order to secure this economic support. Hosting an anti-Assad meeting on Syria, as is scheduled for this Friday, is a step in that direction.
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  • In an interview with journalists before leaving the Kingdom, Jebali assured the Saudis that Tunisians are not interested in exporting their revolution or interfering in the affairs of other countries. He made this claim just three days before his country was scheduled to host an international conference to “exert more pressure on the Syrian regime.” More accurately, Jebali should have said that his country is not interested in interfering in the affairs of rich States of Gulf.
  • the most significant achievement of the ruling Islamist parties is relativizing religious discourse.
  • The Tunisian and Egyptian elections, however, have unveiled the profuse diversity within Islamism. The Muslim Brethren now face formidable competition from at least three other Islamist groups including the al-Nur Party which won over 24% of the votes. In Tunisia, Ennahda is under constant pressure by Salafis and al-Tahrir Party Islamists who did not field their own candidates in the October 23 elections. In Morocco, the Islamist party (Justice and Development) won decisive number of seats in the recent parliamentarian elections but remains challenged by the more popular Islamist movement, al-Adl wa-‘l-Ihsan, that shunned elections under the watch of a monarch.
  • Despite the short-term instability that will accompany the Arab revolutions, the future of the Arab world is promising. Excluding Islamists deprived the peoples of the region of the extraordinary opportunities to develop their societies, preserve human dignity, and take pride in belonging. Their rise to power is moderating their views and teaching them a lesson in humility and realism. The emergence of different Islamist parties is a path towards innovation and reform in modern Islamic thought and practice. The new spread of elections endorses the universal idea that people are the only true sovereign, and should have the opportunity to choose their public servants through fair and transparent elections. 
Ed Webb

Exporting Jihad - The New Yorker - 0 views

  • A friend of Mohamed’s, an unemployed telecommunications engineer named Nabil Selliti, left Douar Hicher to fight in Syria. Oussama Romdhani, who edits the Arab Weekly in Tunis, told me that in the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosters critical thought. Before Selliti left, Mohamed asked him why he was going off to fight. Selliti replied, “I can’t build anything in this country. But the Islamic State gives us the chance to create, to build bombs, to use technology.” In July, 2013, Selliti blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq.
  • Tourism, one of Tunisia’s major industries, dropped by nearly fifty per cent after June 26th last year, when, on a beach near the resort town of Sousse, a twenty-three-year-old student and break-dancing enthusiast pulled an automatic weapon out of his umbrella and began shooting foreigners; he spared Tunisian workers, who tried to stop him. The terrorist, who had trained at an Islamic State camp in Libya, killed thirty-eight people, thirty of them British tourists, before being shot dead by police.
  • he condemned the Sousse massacre and a terrorist attack in March, 2015, at Tunisia’s national museum, the Bardo, where three gunmen killed two dozen people. The victims were innocents, he said. Kamal still entertained a fantasy of joining a reformed police force. His knowledge of Islam was crude, and his allegiance to isis seemed confused and provisional—an expression of rage, not of ideology. But in Douar Hicher anger was often enough to send young people off to fight
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  • “The youth are lost,” Kamal told me. “There’s no justice.” Douar Hicher, he said, “is the key to Tunisia.” He continued, “If you want to stop terrorism, then bring good schools, bring transportation—because the roads are terrible—and bring jobs for young people, so that Douar Hicher becomes like the parts of Tunisia where you Westerners come to have fun.”
  • “Maybe it’s the Tunisian nature—we like risk,” a former jihadi told me. A million Tunisians live and work in Europe. “A lot of drug dealers are Tunisian; many smugglers of goods between Turkey and Greece are Tunisian; a lot of human traffickers in Belgrade are Tunisian. Online hackers—be careful of the Tunisians, there’s a whole network of them.”
  • “The radical narrative tells you that whatever you’ve learned about Islam is wrong, you have to discard it—we have the new stuff. The old, traditional, moderate Islam doesn’t offer you the adventure of the isis narrative. It doesn’t offer you the temptation to enjoy, maybe, your inner savagery. isis offers a false heaven for sick minds.”
  • Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive. New liberties clashed with the old habits of a police state—young Tunisians were suddenly permitted to join civic and political groups, but the cops harassed them for expressing dissent. Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. A third of recent college graduates can’t find work. Frustration led young people to take to the streets in 2011; a similar desperate impulse is now driving other young people toward jihad.
  • the factors that drive young men and women to adopt Salafi jihadism are diverse and hard to parse: militants reach an overwhelmingly reductive idea by complex and twisted paths. A son of Riyadh grows up hearing Salafi preaching in a state-sanctioned mosque and goes to Syria with the financial aid of a Saudi businessman. A young Sunni in Falluja joins his neighbors in fighting American occupation and “Persian”—Shiite—domination. A Muslim teen-ager in a Paris banlieue finds an antidote to her sense of exclusion and spiritual emptiness in a jihadi online community. Part of the success of isis consists in its ability to attract a wide array of people and make them all look, sound, and think alike.
  • Souli wasn’t sure what should be done with returned jihadis, but, like nearly everyone I met, he spoke of the need for a program of rehabilitation for those who come back. No such program exists
  • In its eagerness to modernize, the Ben Ali regime encouraged widespread access to satellite television and the Internet. The sermons of Islamist firebrands from the Gulf, such as the Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, entered the homes of Tunisians who felt smothered by official secularism. Oussama Romdhani, who was a senior official under Ben Ali—he was referred to as the “propaganda minister”—told me, “Radicals were able to use these tools of communication to recruit and disseminate the narrative, and they did it quite efficiently.”
  • Around 2000, the Tunisian Combat Group, an Al Qaeda affiliate, emerged in Afghanistan, dedicating itself to the overthrow of the Tunisian government. One of its founders, Tarek Maaroufi, provided false passports to two Tunisians who, allegedly on instructions from Osama bin Laden, travelled to northern Afghanistan posing as television journalists and assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan mujahideen commander, on September 9, 2001. The Combat Group’s other leader, known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, was an Al Qaeda commander; when the Americans overthrew the Taliban, in late 2001, he escaped from Tora Bora with bin Laden, only to be arrested in Turkey, in 2003, and extradited to Tunisia. (Sentenced to forty-three years in prison, he seized the chance to radicalize his fellow-prisoners.)
  • Why can’t the police do their job and stop the terrorists but let the smugglers go with a bribe?
  • revolution opened up a space that Salafis rushed to fill. There were a lot more of them than anyone had realized—eventually, tens of thousands. In February, 2011, Tunisia’s interim government declared an amnesty and freed thousands of prisoners, including many jihadis. Among them was Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, the co-founder of the Tunisian Combat Group. Within two months, he had started Ansar al-Sharia.
  • Walid was vague about his reasons for returning to Tunisia. He mentioned a traumatic incident in which he had seen scores of comrades mowed down by regime soldiers outside Aleppo. He also pointed to the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in April, 2013, which soon engaged in bitter infighting with the Nusra Front. Walid spoke of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, with the personal hatred that Trotskyists once expressed for Stalin. He accused isis of destroying the Syrian resistance and helping the Assad regime. He believed that isis was created by Western powers to undermine Al Qaeda and other true jihadi groups.
  • these aged men from the two Tunisias—Essebsi a haughty remnant of the Francophile élite, Ghannouchi the son of a devout farmer from the provinces—began a series of largely secret conversations, and set Tunisia on a new path. In January, 2014, Ennahdha voluntarily handed over the government to a regime of technocrats. Ghannouchi had put his party’s long-term interests ahead of immediate power. A peaceful compromise like this had never happened in the region. Both old men had to talk their followers back from the brink of confrontation, and some Ennahdha activists regarded Ghannouchi’s strategy as a betrayal.
  • To many Tunisians, Nidaa Tounes feels like the return of the old regime: some of the same politicians, the same business cronies, the same police practices. The Interior Ministry is a hideous seven-story concrete structure that squats in the middle of downtown Tunis, its roof bristling with antennas and satellite dishes, coils of barbed wire barring access from the street. The ministry employs eighty thousand people. There is much talk of reforming Tunisia’s security sector, with the help of Western money and training. (The U.S., seeing a glimmer of hope in a dark region, recently doubled its aid to Tunisia.) But the old habits of a police state persist—during my time in Tunis, I was watched at my hotel, and my interpreter was interrogated on the street.
  • The inhabitants of Kasserine, however neglected by the state, were passionate advocates for their own rights. They had played a central role in the overthrow of the dictatorship, staging some of the earliest protests after Bouazizi’s self-immolation. In every coffee shop, I was told, half the conversations were about politics. Although Kasserine is a recruiting area for jihadis, Tunisia’s wealthy areas are so remote that the town felt less alienated than Douar Hicher and Ben Gardane.
  • “You feel no interest from the post-revolutionary governments in us here. People feel that the coastal areas, with twenty per cent of the people, are still getting eighty per cent of the wealth. That brings a lot of psychological pressure, to feel that you’re left alone, that there’s no horizon, no hope.”
  • The old methods of surveillance are returning. In the center of Kasserine, I met an imam named Mahfoud Ben Deraa behind the counter of the hardware store he owns. He had just come back from afternoon prayers, but he was dressed like a man who sold paint. “I might get kicked out of the mosque, because last Friday’s sermon was something the government might not like,” the imam told me. He had preached that, since the government had closed mosques after terror attacks, “why, after an alcoholic killed two people, didn’t they close all the bars?” To some, this sounded like a call for Sharia, and after informers reported him to the police the governor’s office sent him a warning: “In the course of monitoring the religious activities and the religious institutions of the region, I hereby inform you that several violations have been reported.” The imam was ordered to open the mosque only during hours of prayer and to change the locks on the main doors to prevent unsupervised use. The warning seemed like overreach on the part of the state—the twitching of an old impulse from the Ben Ali years.
  • “I never thought I would repeat the same demands as five years ago. The old regime has robbed our dreams.”
  • According to the Tunisian Interior Ministry, a hundred thousand Tunisians—one per cent of the population—were arrested in the first half of 2015. Jihadi groups intend their atrocities to provoke an overreaction, and very few governments can resist falling into the trap.
  • New democracies in Latin America and Eastern Europe and Asia have had to struggle with fragile institutions, corruption, and social inequity. Tunisia has all this, plus terrorism and a failed state next door.
  • Ahmed told himself, “If I pray and ask for divine intervention, maybe things will get better.” Praying did not lead him to the moderate democratic Islam of Ennahdha. His thoughts turned more and more extreme, and he became a Salafi. He quit smoking marijuana and grew his beard long and adopted the ankle-length robe called a qamis. He un-friended all his female friends on Facebook, stopped listening to music, and thought about jihad. On Internet forums, he met jihadis who had been in Iraq and gave him suggestions for reading. Ahmed downloaded a book with instructions for making bombs. In the period of lax security under Ennahdha, he fell in with a radical mosque in Tunis. He was corresponding with so many friends who’d gone to Syria that Facebook deactivated his account. Some of them became leaders in the Islamic State, and they wrote of making thirty-five thousand dollars a year and having a gorgeous European wife or two. Ahmed couldn’t get a girlfriend or buy a pack of cigarettes.
  • “Dude, don’t go!” Walid said when they met on the street. “It’s just a trap for young people to die.” To Walid, Ahmed was exactly the type of young person isis exploited—naïve, lost, looking for the shortest path to Heaven. Al Qaeda had comparatively higher standards: some of its recruits had to fill out lengthy application forms in which they were asked to name their favorite Islamic scholars. Walid could answer such questions, but they would stump Ahmed and most other Tunisian jihadis.
  • “We need to reform our country and learn how to make it civilized,” he said. “In Tunisia, when you finish your pack of cigarettes, you’ll throw it on the ground. What we need is an intellectual revolution, a revolution of minds, and that will take not one, not two, but three generations.”
Ed Webb

UAE now Requires Licenses for 'Social Media Influencers' - 0 views

  •   The United Arab Emirates says it will now require anyone conducting "commercial activities" through social media to register for a government-issued license.
  • new rules announced Tuesday target so-called "social media influencers,"
  • help ensure "that media material respects the religious, cultural and social values of the UAE,"
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  • The UAE, while liberal in many regards compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors, has strict laws governing expression. Journalists working in the country require government-issued press cards. People also have been jailed for their comments online.
Ed Webb

Civic Religion and the Secular Jew - 0 views

  • Who would speak alongside President-elect Sanders on the steps of the Capitol Building? Who would deliver the invocations and the benedictions? Would there be more rabbis, or more pastors and priests? Would Sanders be sworn in on a Bible, a Tanakh, something else? Might Sanders, a staunch defender of the separation of church and state, object to the presence of prayer altogether?  The difficulty of answering these questions illustrates just how significant a change from the status quo the election of a secular Jewish president would be. It remains conventional wisdom among pundits and pollsters that America is a deeply religious country, and that any presidential candidate must speak—and speak authentically—about their faith in order to win. The election of Trump—who transparently has no spiritual life to speak of and who has proven utterly incapable of speaking convincingly about matters of faith—should have finally proven this idea false. Yet the expectation has persisted. 
  • there is, paradoxically, something almost unassimilable about Sanders’s secular Jewishness.
  • While Sanders readily admits that he is “not actively involved in organized religion,” it isn’t quite accurate to describe him as “religiously unaffiliated.” That’s because, like many of the conventional frameworks for understanding faith and religious identity in the US, this kind of binary—religiously affiliated vs. unaffiliated—is not adequate for understanding American Jewish life
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  • The binary of theism vs. atheism is likewise unhelpful in understanding Jewish identity.
  • while discussions of Christianity often center around personal faith, it’s not uncommon, even in relatively observant American Jewish communities, for questions of ethics, ritual, and practice to take much greater priority than questions of faith or belief in God
  • Sanders does not belong to a synagogue—and he has this in common with two-thirds of American Jewish adults, according to Pew’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans.” He is part of an interfaith family, as are 44% of married Jewish adults. (Sanders married Jane O’Meara, a practicing Catholic, in 1988, when the rate of intermarriage was around 41%, but the share of Jews marrying non-Jews has since increased: roughly 60% of Jews who married after 2005 married a non-Jew.) On Israel, the self-described “100% pro-Israel” Sanders is a conventional liberal Zionist: strongly critical of Benjamin Netanyahu, still committed to a two-state solution, and willing to use US government pressure to hold Israel accountable for its actions. Most American Jews hold similar views: the majority feel positively about Israel, disagree with its government’s policies, support a two-state solution, and believe the US should exert pressure on Israel to achieve peace.
  • That so many Jewish institutional leaders, as well as Jewish journalists, have chafed at, second-guessed, or rejected Sanders’s kind of Jewishness says much more about their own disconnection from the great majority of American Jews than it does about Sanders.
  • his particular religious vocabulary—of trauma, solidarity, this-worldly justice—also fits uneasily into the hegemonic, Christianity-inflected form of American religious discourse writ large, which emphasizes notions like personal salvation, faith, and grace
  • Sanders’s secular Jewishness is among the most common forms of Jewish identity in the US, yet it is a religious identity that has never before appeared so prominently on the national political stage. The question of its intelligibility to non-Jews is also the question of the intelligibility of American Jewish life
Ed Webb

Turkey's Thirty-Year Coup | The New Yorker - 0 views

  • Within the country, the military saw Gülenists as a considerable threat. Gareth Jenkins, a fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Istanbul, said that, during the nineteen-nineties, the armed forces expelled hundreds of officers on suspicion of harboring links to Gülen. In a cable released by WikiLeaks, an American diplomat wrote that secular officers devised a test: they invited fellow-soldiers and their wives to pool parties, reasoning that women who declined to appear in public wearing swimsuits must be restricted by their religion. According to the diplomat, the Gülenist wives became aware of the tactic and came up with a countermeasure: they started wearing bikinis more revealing than their hosts’. When military inspectors began searching officers’ homes, the Gülenists stocked their refrigerators with decoy bottles of alcohol and planted empties in the trash.
  • Hanefi Avcı, the police chief for Eskişehir Province, told me that he saw Gülenist police, prosecutors, and judges fabricate evidence in political investigations. But when he alerted his superiors he was ignored. “I talked to ministers and I wrote memos and didn’t get any replies,” he said.In 2009, Avcı secretly began writing a book detailing the Gülenists’ activities in the police and judiciary. He described a movement of protean adaptability, whose methods resembled those of terrorist groups and criminal organizations; they framed opponents by planting evidence or blackmailed them with information gleaned from wiretaps. “What made the Gülen movement different is that it was inside the state,” he said, noting that infiltrators in his department had sabotaged the careers of at least ten colleagues. The book, called “Simons Living on the Golden Horn” (the title is an abstruse metaphor for not seeing what is in plain sight), became a best-seller. It seemed especially authoritative because Avcı, a conservative Islamist, had two children in Gülenist schools.
  • The judiciary, emboldened by Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, pursued the investigations ever closer to Erdoğan. In the early months of 2012, police issued a subpoena to Hakan Fidan—the chief of national intelligence and a confidant of the Prime Minister—and arrested Ilker Başbuğ, the country’s highest military officer. “They felt that they could arrest anyone,” Gareth Jenkins said. Erdoğan responded in a way that seemed calculated to hobble the Gülenists: he started closing down their schools—a crucial source of income—and working to restrain the police.
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  • On December 17, 2013, police arrested Zarrab and eighty-eight others, including forty-three government officials. Although they did not arrest any of Erdoğan’s ministers, they detained the sons of three of them, claiming that they were conduits for bribes. Erdoğan’s son Bilal also came under suspicion, after a wiretap captured what was alleged to be a conversation between him and his father. Erdoğan has insisted that the tape was doctored, but it circulated widely on social media, and Turks claimed to recognize his voice.Tayyip Erdoğan: Eighteen people’s homes are being searched right now with this big corruption operation. . . . So I’m saying, whatever you have at home, take it out. O.K.?Bilal: Dad, what could I even have at home? There’s your money in the safe.Tayyip: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.A little while later, the two apparently spoke again.Tayyip: Did you get rid of all of it, or . . . ?Bilal: No, not all of it, Dad. So, there’s something like thirty million euros left that we haven’t been able to liquidate.
  • Western officials told me that they regarded the investigation as a Gülenist attempt to topple Erdoğan’s government—but that the evidence seemed credible.
  • On Christmas Day, 2015, Turkish intelligence breached an encrypted messaging app called ByLock—an apparently homemade network with two hundred thousand users. According to Turkish officials, it was set up not long after Erdoğan began purging suspected Gülenists from the government. When the network was discovered, the server, in Lithuania, quickly closed down, and its users switched to Eagle, another encrypted messaging app. “They went underground,” a Turkish government aide told me.The intelligence officials say that they were able to decrypt the exchanges, and one told me, “Every conversation was about the Gülen community.” By checking the ByLock users’ names against government records, they found that at least forty thousand were civil employees, mostly from the judiciary and the police department. In May, two months before the coup, the government began suspending them.In July, the intelligence department notified the military that it had also identified six hundred officers of the Turkish Army, many of them highly ranked, among the ByLock users. Military officials began planning to expel them at a meeting of senior generals that was scheduled for early the next month. “We think the coup happened in July because they needed to move before they were expelled,” Ibrahim Kalın, the Erdoğan aide, told me.
  • it seems that the plotters staked their operation on capturing or killing Erdoğan and persuading General Akar to join them. “If those things had happened, the coup would have succeeded,” Kalın said. But none of the most senior generals of the Turkish armed forces could be persuaded to join, which may have left the plotters without a military leader. By 4 A.M., the coup plotters were running for their lives.
  • For Erdoğan, though, retribution has always come more easily than apologies. The state of emergency that he declared after the coup gave him dictatorial powers, which he used to carry out a far-reaching crackdown that began with Gülenists but has grown to encompass almost anyone who might pose a threat to his expanded authority.
  • Public criticism of Erdoğan has been almost entirely squelched, either by the outpouring of national support that followed the coup or by the fear of being imprisoned. Erdoğan has closed more than a hundred and thirty media outlets and detained at least forty-three journalists, and the purge is still under way.
Ed Webb

"It Started With Conversations - And Then They Started Hitting Each Other" - 0 views

  • Inside the prisons of Egypt and other Arab and Muslim countries, a ferocious competition has erupted between radical militants and more established political Islamists over fresh recruits. ISIS is often muscling out more peaceful groups for influence and loyalists among the mostly young men tossed into cramped cells for months or years.
  • Some inmates are subjected to torture and deprivation, despite having committed no or minimal crimes, fueling anger that researchers have long feared breeds extremism in Arab jails.
  • The political dynamics inside Arab detention centers have ramifications far beyond the prison walls. Jails in the Middle East have long forged radical extremists, including the Egyptian intellectual godfather of Islamic extremism, Sayyid Qutb, and the founder of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian ex-convict whose al-Qaeda in Iraq later morphed into ISIS. Alleged ISIS supporters find prisons to be fertile soil, especially in brutal Arab regimes like Egypt. There are numerous signs ISIS has begun using prisons that are intended to confine them and limit their activities to expand their influence and even plan operations. Egyptian authorities and activists believe former prisoners recruited by ISIS in jail were behind suicide bombings of churches in Cairo in December and on Palm Sunday this year in Alexandria and Tanta.
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  • “Many of the prisoners were already very angry after the coup and eager to fight,” said Yasser Khalil, an Egyptian journalist who has extensively covered prisons. “Telling them them they will go to heaven and get virgins just makes it that much more attractive. They say, ‘Yes, you have a Christian neighbor and he is lovely. But the Coptic Church supports the state, and thus they should be killed.’”
  • Reports have emerged of ISIS recruiters being locked up in prisons all the way from Algeria to Russia’s Caucasus region, Tajikistan, and Indonesia.
  • many warn that ISIS’s nihilism is overpowering the Brotherhood’s appeals. “This is the year of disappointment and disillusion when there’s no hope for the Islamist factions to get out of prison any time soon,”
  • Refusing legal counsel is one trait that distinguishes ISIS prisoners from other inmates, including alleged al-Qaeda supporters. “He used to love life. He used to be keen on getting out of jail. But not anymore.”
  • “ISIS says, ‘We tried democracy and we ended up in jail,’” Abdullah recalled. “‘It was the army that introduced the gun. Why is Sisi in power? He has guns.’”
  • “His mission was to get closer to the poor and the simple people and convince them that if they joined the Islamic State they would have power, money, and women,” he said, “and heaven in the afterlife.”
  • Ahmed Abdullah, the liberal activist, had had enough. He approached some wealthy businessmen inside the prison and arranged for them to bribe guards to allow in some books. He launched a reading group using Arabic translations of world literature and philosophy. They read Franz Kafka to understand the nightmarish nature of Egypt’s bureaucracy, George Orwell as an illustration of brutal authoritarianism, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as an introduction to democratic governance and the social contract. To his delight the other prisoners were receptive; even some of the Islamists would attend the talks.Suddenly, security forces stormed in and seized the books, loudly accusing Abdullah, who is a professor of engineering at a university in Cairo, of poisoning the minds of the inmates. He was transferred to a dank solitary confinement cell, without a towel or blanket. After three days he was released from jail. He said authorities must have calculated he was more trouble inside prison than outside.“When we have a chance to compete we win,” said Abdullah, smoking flavored shisha at a cafe in central Cairo. “The inmates were really excited with what we had to say. But it turns out our government considers secular activists more dangerous than the Muslim Brotherhood, or ISIS.”
  • Many of Egypt’s estimated 40,000 prisoners are being held in makeshift jailhouses, interior ministry compounds and military camps that don’t have the capacity for separating inmates. One former prisoner described watching as another inmate was recruited by an ISIS supporter while sitting for hours in the van on the way from jail to court. One researcher described a brawl involving Brotherhood and ISIS prisoners during a similar transfer of inmates earlier this year.
  • “ISIS looks down on the Muslim Brotherhood, they consider them infidels, and they point this out to the younger Muslim Brotherhood members,”
  • ISIS targets recruits who have special skills. Gamal Ziada recalled intense competition between the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS over a prisoner who was a student at Cairo’s elite Zewail City of Science and Technology, considered Egypt’s MIT. “ISIS told him, ‘You’re not going to carry a weapon,’” Gamal Ziada said. “‘You’re not going to fight. You will use your brain.’”
  • “He tried to convince me that I was an apostate and that my parents were apostates too, and I have to convince my family to give up the pleasures of the world and return to Allah,” the smuggler said of his 2015 imprisonment. “He used to ask me to share lunch and dinner with him. He was ordering the best Turkish food in town. He was very rich. He told me that I could continue my work in smuggling for the Islamic State and make much more profit than I did with working with refugees.”
  • “Imagine you are in prison — the great challenge is killing time,” said Ghadi, whose father and brother have been jailed. “Before you could read books. When they closed that door the only way to kill time is sharing your thoughts and experiences. The Islamist groups and factions are the great majority of prisoners. Imagine there’s a constant flow of radical ideas into your mind. They talk and listen and talk and listen. You start to give in. You get weak. You lose all rational argument. You are finally ready to absorb radical thoughts and arguments.”
  • Some experts fear ISIS has recruited potential sleeper agents in prison who might later become emboldened to act. Abdou, the researcher, said he interviewed one former inmate who joined ISIS in prison but dropped any Islamist pretenses the moment he walked out of jail, shaving his beard and going back to smoking shisha and lazing about with old friends.
  • ISIS recruitment and violence inside prisons jumped in 2015 when Egyptian authorities began clamping down on allowing books inside jails
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